Unions taking on Dems who don't toe labor line

Frustrated at seeing their legislative agenda stymied, unions are becoming increasingly active in competitive Democratic Senate primaries.

Across the country, labor groups are using their organizational muscle early against candidates whom they see as having walked away from their agenda.

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By doing so, they’re exposing schisms between centrist and liberal Democratic lawmakers who have struggled to come through on the campaign promises made to union members. The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), healthcare reform and even a nominee to the little-known National Labor Relations Board have stalled in a Congress controlled by the largest majorities Democrats have enjoyed in a generation.

“We can’t get anything done for the people that we represent,” said Gerry McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “We are taking a new tack. This a new day. We are going to play in the primaries.”

Unions have already made their picks among dueling Democrats in the closely watched Senate primaries in Arkansas and Colorado, and union officials say to expect other early endorsements.

The Pennsylvania chapters of the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) both say they will endorse a candidate in the Senate Democratic primary, perhaps as early as this weekend. And McEntee predicted unions will pick a Democratic primary candidate in the Ohio and Kentucky Senate races as well.

“Labor’s back,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley. “We’re seeing a labor movement that has more confidence and is more energetic than it’s been in a long while when it comes to politics.”

“We’re tired of being taken for granted,” said Alan Hughes, president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO. “It’s like, ‘We want your help to get elected, we want your money, we want the ground workers,’ but when it comes time to [act on the union’s priorities] … they’re not listening.”

Hughes’s union has gotten behind the Democratic challenger to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

Unions previously had been more reticent to challenge established Democratic incumbents, according to Shaiken, who was considered a possible Labor secretary for the Obama administration.

“If you really were dissatisfied with Blanche Lincoln, you might not be enthusiastic about supporting her but you wouldn’t mount a full primary challenge with $4 million from four key unions,” he said.

Weighing into a primary fight isn’t new territory for labor, he added. “What’s new is this ability and scale and energy with which labor’s doing it.”

Discussions on whether or not to support Democratic primary challengers began in earnest at the AFL-CIO executive council in the summer of 2009. McEntee, as head of the AFL-CIO’s political committee, has been leading that cause.

But some union officials grumble it’s a waste of time and resources. One union official said that supporting Democratic primary challengers is “mindless.”

“It does not take a pundit to recognize that November is going to be ugly for Democrats and eating our own in primaries makes no sense,” the official said.

Some union groups are lining up on different sides in a Democratic primary. For example, SEIU Colorado has gotten behind Sen. Michael Bennet (D) while the state chapters of the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union are supporting his Democratic primary challenger, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D). The parent unions are part of the same labor coalition, Change to Win.

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Phil Hayes, political director of the Colorado chapter of the AFL-CIO, noted that his group could endorse either Bennet or Romanoff, or could opt to back both candidates or neither. The union will make its decision at its convention in June, he said. The primary is Aug. 10.

Like Bennet, not all Democratic incumbents are in danger of losing union support.

“It will depend on the record of the incumbent,” McEntee said. “In the past, we kind of swallowed it and supported them just because they were a Democrat. We are not going to do that anymore.”

Moreover, the recent Supreme Court decision that loosens restrictions on corporate as well as union spending in campaigns is forcing labor’s hand. Worried that they will have to compete with business groups’ wealth, unions are gearing up earlier than planned for the 2010 campaigns to match their spending.

“The reason is the Supreme Court changed the rules in the fundraising game,” said Bill George, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

George has been keeping a close eye on the primary battle between Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.). Sestak is challenging the former Republican over his newfound loyalty to Democratic Party values and has not been shy in expressing his labor bona fides during the race.

Accordingly, Sestak received the endorsement of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union earlier this week. George expects his 900,000-member-strong union will make an endorsement before the May primary and hinted it is leaning toward the incumbent.

“Some of the affiliates are leaning toward Specter, to be honest. He is coming back strong,” George said.

SEIU is expected to weigh in even earlier, according to Eileen Connelly, executive director of the union’s Pennsylvania State Council. Connelly said union members consider two vital factors when endorsing Democratic candidates in primaries: viability in the general election and how they stand on labor’s issues.

“If we endorse, it means something. We are not in for paper endorsements,” Connelly said.

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That means an SEIU field operation in Pennsylvania of direct mail and canvassers from the 100,000-member-strong union working to support their chosen candidate.

One issue that could determine labor’s support in Pennsylvania is how the candidates stand on EFCA, which is a key legislative priority for labor since it would make union organizing much easier.

In 2009, Specter, as a Republican, at first promised to support a filibuster of the bill. But he has since come back to it as a Democrat, working on a compromise version. But because the legislation has little chance of passage this Congress, it does not hold the same political sway over labor leaders.

“In my view, card-check left the Employee Free Choice Act a long time ago,” Connelly said. “Sen. Specter was key in working out a compromise on the bill with a small group of senators that I believe most if not all of labor could support.”

George said Specter has been with the Obama administration on healthcare reform, trade and other key issues for labor. “OK, he was not right on this one issue,” the union leader said about EFCA.

George also noted the potential self-destructiveness a primary could have for the Democrats.

“You have gotten a senior ranking senator. And Joe Sestak is a good congressman. But we might lose his seat now,” George said. “How do we win-win on this?”