Obama, Clinton seek union vote in close Pa. race

Could determine bitterly fought primary contest

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / April 21, 2008

PHILADELPHIA - When she answered her doorbell, Head Start teacher Diane Klein knew she had seen the man wearing the Hillary Clinton T-shirt before: It was her union president, Jerry Jordan, and Klein was impressed that the head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had given up a sunny weekend to make an in-person appeal for the New York senator.

And Jordan wasn't alone at the undecided voter's door at a rowhouse in central Philadelphia. He had brought along Randi Weingarten, the powerful president of New York City's United Federation of Teachers, to make the case for Clinton ahead of Pennsylvania's presidential primary tomorrow.

Clinton is leading in opinion polls in Pennsylvania, but Barack Obama has narrowed the gap in recent weeks. Labor unions are divided between Clinton and Obama; the votes cast by union members like Klein could be a crucial factor in the outcome.

"I'm voting. I haven't decided whom I'm voting for, but I'm voting," Klein, 59, told the union chiefs, adding that she liked the "energy" Obama has brought to the race. "I've always liked Hillary, but I don't like the way she's been running the campaign," Klein added.

Weingarten persisted. "Her feistiness and her smarts help," Weingarten said, in getting things done in Washington. She handed Klein some pro-Clinton literature before heading to the next union household.

In Pennsylvania, teachers are among Clinton's most devoted and relentless supporters: the American Federation of Teachers, which has brought volunteers in from as far away as Alaska and Louisiana to knock on doors and call voters, urging them to vote for Clinton, who has the AFT's endorsement.

Despite the discouraging political math indicating that Clinton won't win a majority of pledged delegates by the end of the primary season, the teachers say they are not giving up hope that superdelegates will make Clinton the nominee.

"Say a child in your class has been failing all year. Are you going to give up? As a schoolteacher, you fight all year," Weingarten said. While Clinton has been struggling to stay competitive in the waning weeks of the campaign, teachers are determined to help deliver not just a win in Pennsylvania, she said, but "a great showing" that political specialists say Clinton needs to stay in contention for the nomination.

Clinton and Obama criss-crossed the state yesterday in frenzied, last-minute campaigning that has become increasingly testy. Clinton is widely favored to win tomorrow's contest here, but Obama has narrowed the gap in polls, challenging Clinton's argument to superdelegates that she is more capable of besting McCain in bigger, post-industrial states.

Union voters are crucial in Pennsylvania, where more than 15 percent of salaried and hourly workers belong to a union, compared with a national average of 12.1 percent. The organizational help that union workers bring to a candidate - mailing literature, canvassing and running phone-banks - are often more important than the sheer numbers of union voters.

But the workers' groups are also divided in the state. While Clinton has secured the backing of the AFT and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Obama has captured the endorsement of Change to Win, an umbrella group that includes such powerful unions as the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters. And while AFSCME has heartily backed Clinton, the chief of one of its affiliated unions, Hospital Workers Local 1999, has endorsed Obama.

Clinton started with an institutional advantage, since many union members have an affection for former President Clinton, and were inclined to support another Clinton, said Jeffrey Lerner, national political field director for Change to Win. But he said the more Obama has campaigned in the state - and the more union leaders give him the stamp of approval - the more the Illinois senator has been able to chip away at Clinton's lead in polls, which was once more than 20 points.

"In many cases, it's been the unions introducing Obama to their members for the first time. That's a great validator for him," Lerner said.

Union members for both candidates have been out in full force in recent days: Change to Win had 500 volunteers knocking on doors yesterday, and will have 800 on the ground on Election Day, said Eileen Connelly, executive director of the Pennsylvania SEIU state council.

The umbrella union group has sent out some 600,000 mailings to voters for Obama. The AFT, for its part, has spent $329,000 on independent expenditures backing Clinton in Pennsylvania. Retired teachers alone have made more than 12,000 phone calls for her, and by Election Day, AFT members will have been contacted three times by the union with entreaties to vote for Clinton.

The difficulty in wooing members, union supporters for both campaigns say, is that there isn't much difference between the two Democrats on policy affecting labor unions.

Both Clinton and Obama support rules reinforcing the right to join unions, and while both have had their anti-NAFTA credentials questioned, Clinton and Obama have each declared their intentions to fix the North American Free Trade Agreement to protect workers and the environment. Both have comprehensive healthcare plans, and back proposals to discourage the export of jobs overseas.

Like many voters, union members are choosing between the rivals' competing campaign messages. Clinton voters said they value her experience and are excited about having a female president, while many Obama supporters explained that they want a change in Washington and dislike what they call the negative tone of Clinton's campaign.

"If she's the candidate, I'll vote for her" in November, but tomorrow "I'm voting for Obama. I don't like some of the things she's saying," a man in downtown Philadelphia told AFT canvassers. But the Clinton T-shirts also elicited cheers from others. "That's my girl!" said an older woman as she watched the union members leave Clinton fliers at the door.

The turnout by members of both sets of unions is expected to have a big impact on tomorrow's results; Change to Win estimates that its members represent 30 to 35 percent of the Obama vote in Pennsylvania. But leaders in both union groups say their primary disagreement will end when there is a Democratic nominee - and that all the unions will rally around that candidate.

Everybody likes both of these candidates," said Wendell Young, president of local 1776 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has endorsed Obama. "There's no animosity."

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