Iowa’s House of Labor Is Split

By: Wall Street Journal

Despite Democratic Bid for Unity, Support May Divide Four Ways

Alan Anderson is urging fellow United Steelworkers in Mason City, Iowa, to support John Edwards. Joe Bohl, a cousin who works for the city’s water utility, says he and other members of the government employees’ union will likely back Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The declining industrial city near the Minnesota border illustrates a problem faced by Democratic candidates heading toward the Jan. 3 presidential nominating caucus: Organized labor is again split over endorsements.

While unions consistently endorse the Democratic candidate for president in the general election, labor’s disunity in the primaries can make planning more difficult for campaigns and ultimately weaken labor’s overall clout.

“If one union endorses one candidate and one endorses another, they work against each other,” says Mark Smith, president of the Iowa State Federation of Labor, part of the AFL-CIO. He should know. Four years ago, big politically active unions endorsed three different candidates leading up to the Iowa caucus.

This year, it is looking like a four-way split. Thursday, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama picked up the endorsement of the regional leadership of the United Auto Workers. In August, the International Association of Fire Fighters endorsed Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, and since then, members throughout Iowa have made numerous appearances with him.

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus shapes many people’s perceptions about who can win in November. But it also provides an early test of unions’ mobilization campaigns and whether rank-and-file members actually support the candidate their leaders have chosen.

In 2004, most unions supported former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean or former Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt. But on caucus day, a plurality of Iowans, including many union members, came out for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who went on to become the Democratic nominee.

Earlier this year, AFL-CIO leaders rolled out a presidential-endorsement process that included more town-hall meetings with candidates in hopes of unifying labor’s support behind a single Democrat and preventing a repeat of the 2004 divisions. That goal became “a mountain too high to climb,” as unions pursued their own political priorities, says Gerald McEntee, head of the federation’s political program and president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Mr. McEntee, whose union endorsed Mr. Dean in 2004, called this year’s nominating process the most “exhaustive” ever, involving more meetings among candidates and the union’s leaders and membership. Before endorsing Mrs. Clinton last month, the union polled 50,000 members and found that 72% supported her. “We don’t intend to be wrong on this,” says Mr. McEntee, who looked smart when he backed Bill Clinton early in the 1992 election cycle, but said the Dean endorsement was a mistake.

This year’s disunity stems partly from differing views on the most important issue. The Steelworkers support Mr. Edwards’s pro-labor stance on trade, a message that strikes home with manufacturing workers hurt by globalization.

Many firefighters say they are behind Mr. Dodd because of his legislative track record, including a federal program that enabled hundreds of fire departments in Iowa to upgrade equipment. “You can’t go to a county in the state where his work didn’t directly impact our work,” says John TeKippe, president of a firefighters local in Des Moines. “Our support of him is really close to home.”

AFSCME officials like Mrs. Clinton’s stance on health care, Social Security and ending the Iraq war — and they believe she can win next November. “I think she has the best chance of running the long campaign and winning in the end,” Mr. Bohl says.

Other unions cite loyalty as a factor. Mr. Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, has trod numerous picket lines in recent years, including earlier this month with nurses in Dubuque. “He has made himself available for the last three years to support organizing work and poverty work, so we’re there to support him now,” says Sarah Swisher, the Service Employees International Union’s state political director and vice chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. SEIU President Andy Stern has left it up to the union’s state chapters to decide which candidate they will support.

Mrs. Clinton has the most labor backing nationally as well as in Iowa, where 11.3% of the work force — or 161,000 residents — belong to unions. The International Association of Machinists, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the United Transportation Union and the American Federation of Teachers, which has a minimal presence in the state, have also endorsed her. AFSCME plans to send 100 activists to Iowa in the next few weeks, and spend about $5 million on mobilization efforts just in the primary states. For the first time, the Machinists also endorsed a Republican candidate, Mike Huckabee, an acknowledgment that many of the union’s members are Republican.

In addition to the small-but-active Iowa state affiliate of SEIU, which mostly represents health-care workers in the state, Mr. Edwards has won endorsements from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and from the United Steelworkers, which plans to have 100 activists on the ground in Iowa after Thanksgiving.

Some Iowa union members still puzzle over what happened four years ago when Mr. Kerry pulled off a victory when the only major union backing him was the firefighters. “To this day, I don’t know what happened there,” says Mr. Anderson, the Steelworker member. In 2004, he supported Mr. Gephardt, as did his union. “That’s Iowa though. People changed their minds.”

Indeed, many members will follow their own instincts, ignoring the candidate backed by their union leadership. “I’ve had some of my own members say, ‘I’m not going to caucus for Hillary,’” says Mark Fallis, vice president of the National Association of Letter Carriers in Iowa.

Write to Kris Maher at

* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:
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