by Sarah Kneezle
Aside from ties to Arkansas, what do Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton
and former Republican Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have in common?
Believe it or not, both have received an endorsement from the same labor union.
The 700,000-member International Association of Machinists and
Aerospace Workers paired these two in August, a sharp change from
elections past when unions would throw their weight behind a single
candidate in a single party.
Several major national unions have chosen to leave it up to their
locals to decide whom to back, creating a patchwork of union support
that’s also different from any time before.
In short, in this election of new-fangled campaigning on YouTube and
Facebook, the old-fashioned labor unions are taking unique approaches
to politicking of their own.
In announcing his union’s endorsement, IAM International President Tom
Buffenbarger cited Clinton’s focus on jobs, health care, education and
trade while also praising Huckabee for showing the “guts” to meet with
“The dual endorsement is intended to involve all IAM members in the
upcoming election,” Buffenbarger said in a statement. “It is fitting
for the union whose early members gave birth to Labor Day to reach
beyond traditional partisan boundaries to establish new relationships
for the benefit of all working Americans.”
Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard University and
author of the 1984 book What Do Unions Do?, said that although unions
now make up a smaller percentage of the electorate, they nonetheless
are reaching out to new groups of voters.
“They should give recommendations to the Republican and Democratic
members as well,” he said, noting that most unions have many members
who typically vote Republican despite traditional ties to the
Another growing area of union outreach is the creation of educational
arms that seek to influence votes beyond the membership
In 2003, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. created Working America, a community
affiliate that aims to educate non-union households and get them
engaged in the political process through canvassing, professional
research and organizing.
“The working America is actually getting people out to vote,” Freeman
said. “We have to go beyond union members. We have to educate people.
We have to explain things to people like ministers.”
In 1996, the A.F.L.-C.I.O also created a ten-week educational
internship program, called Union Summer to engage potential union
organizers. Working with students, workers and community activists, it
places interns in various parts of the country to canvas, interview
workers and work on campaigns.
Consistent with tradition, all the major Democratic presidential
candidates this year have courted union leaders and contain rhetoric
in their stump speeches about helping America’s middle class. Former
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is one candidate who has sought
union support aggressively. Edwards made combating poverty a major
piece of his platform early on and, like the two Democratic
frontrunners, Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, he has stressed
Clinton has been courting families in New Hampshire and Iowa with
rallies under the banner, “Parents balance work and family”
Still, despite the candidates’ persistent courtship, two of the
biggest unions in the country, the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees
International Union, have backed out of making a national endorsement
in the primaries. Instead, these organizations are acting locally
this election cycle.
The AF-CIO endorsed Sen. John Kerry in February 2004. But the union
did not make an endorsement this year when its 10-million members
could not muster the two-thirds support required to back a single
The 1.9 million-member SEIU, which split off from the AFL-CIO in 1995
with the Teamsters under a platform of reform, endorsed former Vermont
Gov. Howard Dean in 2004.
But this year, its locals have split their endorsements between all
three leading Democrats, with Edwards receiving the most
nationally—10—including Iowa and New Hampshire. (how many are there
are 300, and not all of them have voted. 10 because only 12 have
voted—the number 10 means nothing if there are 300 but if only 15
endorsed, then it matters. Put it in context.)
SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burgersaid in a statement that she
believes the divisions within the union are healthy and can lead to
more intensive grass roots campaigning.
“Any one of these candidates would help create a new American dream
for workers and their families,” Burger said. “Once we have a nominee,
SEIU members and leaders will launch the largest and most
comprehensive campaign in our history to help elect a president who
truly cares about working families.”
But the divisions even within the same local can be intense. One
crucial vote came at the end of October, when Edwards barely won the
endorsement of New Hampshire’s local SEIU 1984 after an initial vote
went to Obama.
The local board initially voted to endorse Obama and even called his
office to tell his backers of his victory. But then it decided to hold
another vote at the state convention in Nashua.
Edwards eventually won with the local’s president, Gary Smith, casting
the deciding vote.
Sometimes the candidates have to tread carefully in other ways.
Union tensions building in three key general election states—Michigan,
California and New York—have left the candidates in a campaigning
During the United Automobile Worker’s strike against General Motors in
September, the candidates were torn about how to react. Barred from
campaigning in Michigan after the state moved its primary to Jan. 15,
several candidates, including Sen. Chris Dodd and Edwards, released
statements in support of the union without making trips to join the
More recently, television networks have been in the spotlight as
screenwriters struck, charging that they’ve been cut out of the
lucrative and rapidly growing sales of their work in new media. The
strike of the Writers Guild of America happened to coincide with
several primetime spots on the talk-show circuit for the candidates
and a debate scheduled for Dec. 10 on CBS.
Edwards and wife Elizabeth cancelled their spot on The View in early
December prompting Sen. Obama’s wife, Michelle, to do the same.
Eventually, the debate, too, was cancelled, one more example of the
role of unions in the race.
“This is a really, really never before election cycle and things are
entirely different,” said Mike Brown, an assistant professor of
journalism at Emerson College. Should former New York Mayor Rudy
Giuliani be nominated as the Republican candidate, Brown added, New
York City’s Local Branch of the International Association of
Firefighters would also walk into the limelight in an unusual
role—trying to stop their own former mayor for drawing support from
the aftermath of 9/11, an event that they say proved not his heroism
but his ineptitude.