Union or necessity

The Communications Workers of America have been meeting at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Capitol Hill this week for their legislative conference.

And there to meet, greet, charm and win them over yesterday were the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.).

The political fortunes of labor unions are rebounding even though their membership continues to dwindle as a proportion of the workforce. Democratic majorities in Congress are trying to making it easier for labor organizers to unionize workforces. The unions can repay them with serious help during election season, which, as we are learning, is interminable and almost inexhaustibly expensive. That prompts political candidates to woo them even more.

Union power may prove particularly potent this cycle because of the massive early primary on what is becoming known as Tsunami Tuesday, Feb. 5. States that collectively are home to more than half the population of the country will pick their favored candidates that day.

With a mother lode of delegates to pick up or lose all at once, presidential candidates have to find some way of campaigning for as many of them as possible. That means being in half the states at the same time. And who apart from labor unions can do that?

They have the manpower, organization and geographical reach to be perhaps the most effective campaign support group of all — manning phone banks, handing out leaflets, knocking on doors and spending money.

In this extraordinary cycle, with national campaigns displacing local ones, organized labor can hold out the promise of providing the electoral ground troops that every White House hopeful wants.

And labor is determined not to let divisions weaken union clout, as it did in 2004. At the time, the movement was tearing itself apart. It was as the 2004 election approached that the Service Employees International Union, under President Andrew Stern, and the Teamsters, under President James Hoffa, were in the process of breaking away from the AFL-CIO.
But the unions got their act together in 2006, and their success in those midterms has clearly taught them again the merit of what is surely their oldest skill, organization — organization both in the sense of being united and in the sense of applying pressure for political, legislative and economic goals.

Democrats seeking the White House cannot afford to let their opponents marshal union forces against them. Which means unions are going to have a big say in writing presidential platforms.

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