by Robin Gerber | bio

The biggest losers so far in the political primaries are American labor unions.

In Iowa, labor was supposed to be Democratic Sen. John Edwards’ secret weapon, although Sen. Hillary Clinton had strong union support as well. But no national union had given support to Sen. Barack Obama.

In fact, Obama spent a good deal of time complaining about the spending of union-affiliated groups, known as "527’s," that were targeted at him. Union leaders accused him of dissing the rights of union employees to participate in politics and accused him of sounding like a Republican.

"I’m taken aback that somebody like Obama would think that Oprah Winfrey has a greater right to participate in the political process than the 4 million people I represent," Edward J. McElroy, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said referring to the talk show host’s highly-publicized round of campaigning for Obama. McElroy’s union is backing Clinton.

In the end, Obama won Iowa by eight percentage points, and Clinton slipped to third. The public employee union, AFSCME, had spent more than $250,000 on television ads for Clinton, but she barely missed second place, which went to Edwards.

He had the backing of the Service Employees big turnout machine, which had spent more than $2 million in Iowa and New Hampshire to get out the vote for him. But their help didn’t work in either state, with Edwards coming in third in New Hampshire, where only 15 percent of the state is organized.

Labor wasn’t looking like the machine that could deliver going into the Nevada caucuses last Saturday. Still, the conventional thinking was that whoever received the Culinary Workers‘ endorsement would be the odds-on favorite to win. They represent 60,000 cocktail servers, bell department and kitchen workers, cooks, housekeepers, porters and laundry workers.

In the run-up to the caucuses, word leaked that they would probably go for Obama. He got several days of play out of the tease, and then the endorsement came to pass, along with the endorsement of the Nevada chapter of the Service Employees International Union. Expectations were high that labor would deliver, especially because large caucuses were being held in the casinos where the Culinary Workers were on the job, giving them easy access to participate.

But labor didn’t deliver. Clinton won seven of the nine casino caucuses. Union members who participated defied their leaders’ recommendation, citing Clinton’s experience as their main criteria for going her way. Even late-breaking screeds from the Union against Clinton for allegedly trying to interfere with union members’ right to participate by shutting down the casino voting sites had no effect.

Labor can offer a formidable political machine, with money to back up its efforts. But advertising and paid organizers are a shortcut to the harder work of being sure that union members’ concerns and interests are being heard. Perhaps the results from these early states will be a wake-up call to labor leadership that rank-and-file membership must be more closely involved in political action and organizing.

Robin Gerber writes about women and politics for Women’s Voices for Change. Her new novel is "Eleanor vs. Ike" (Harper/Avon January 2008). Visit her website.

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  • Benton January 27, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    Less than 15 percent is organized nationally, so labor’s relatively strong in NH (and just generally weak). The unions that endorsed Clinton had a bigger footprint there than in the other states.
    Iowa is a right to work state. So are South Carolina and Nevada. Nevada is quirky thanks to the casinos, but really none of these places are tailor made for classic union political action.
    I think you’re right thought that one good lesson is that a labor union that is silly enough to endorse a week before the primary is going to run a half baked program.

  • Natalie January 23, 2008 at 11:03 am

    This is just another example of how unions have lost their way. They have long stopped being a major force in influencing the general public and now they apparently can’t even get their members to follow the leadership line.
    Labor unions have been a declining force for many years and not just at election time. The falling wages of the middle class over the last three decades can be attributed at least in part to diminished union membership and subsequent loss of bargaining power. Unions have been severely handicapped by federal policies in their attempts to enroll new members.
    But it is unlikely that even with a Democrat in the White House that unions will regain their former political influence. That’s not good for unions and not good for our country.