Smaller but savvier, labor draws '08 Democrats
Candidates are wooing the union vote more aggressively than anytime in the past 20 years.
Think "American Idol: Organized Labor Edition."Skip to next paragraph
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To reach the final round of judging for an endorsement from the Service Employees International Union, Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama had to survive a series of trials: videotaped interviews with the rank and file, speeches to the union's political wing, submission of a detailed healthcare plan, and "Walk a Day in My Shoes" events in which six Democratic hopefuls shadowed a janitor, teacher, nurse, or other union worker.
The hunt for the union's endorsement culminates Tuesday with speeches at a Chicago convention and is part of an open and aggressive courtship of labor unseen on the campaign trail for more than two decades, labor leaders and analysts say.
Senator Obama joined striking workers outside a Chicago hotel in July and later led Nevada culinary workers in chants of "Fired Up, Ready to Go." Senator Clinton told a firefighters' union in March, "It is absolutely essential to the way America works that people be given the right to organize and bargain collectively." Mr. Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, has campaigned for minimum-wage initiatives in a half dozen states and said at the AFL-CIO debate last month that he had walked 200 picket lines in the past two years.
"There's little question that all of the candidates are much more open, aggressive, and comfortable talking about and embracing the labor movement," says Harold Schaitberger, president of the 281,000-member International Association of Fire Fighters, which recently endorsed Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut. "In the past, candidates would be more inclined to talk about 'worker issues,' 'rights of employees,' 'the middle class.' The word 'union' or 'labor movement' – that wasn't as much in their vocabulary."
Stephanie Mueller, a spokeswoman for the 1.9 million-member Service Employees International Union, says, "We've never had this kind of experience before with candidates."
Talk of unions fell from favor, analysts say, after the AFL-CIO's endorsement of Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential race drew charges from rivals that he was beholden to "special interests."
By 1992, when Democrats looked as if they might again seize the White House, "there was a feeling at least among the 'New Democrats' " – a centrist group that included Bill Clinton – "that labor was out of touch and was part of the old liberal line that had lost them elections in the past," says Peter Francia, a political scientist at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., and author of "The Future of Organized Labor in American Politics."
Labor's political bounce this year comes as union membership continues to slide. Some 12 percent of US workers belonged to unions in 2006, down from more than 20 percent in 1983, according to federal figures.
To counter the loss, unions have devoted a growing share of their budgets to political activity. With new high-tech tools to communicate with members and identify the undecided, they are more effective than ever at propelling members to the polls, say labor leaders and outside experts.