Key Labor Groups Endorse Edwards
ROBERT SMITH, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Robert Smith.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And I'm Madeleine Brand.
He may be a distant third in overall support among the Democratic presidential candidates, but big labor loves him. John Edwards received two major endorsements on Labor Day from the United Steel Workers and the United Mine Workers of America. Will it make a difference though?
Here to talk about the labor vote is NPR's labor correspondent Frank Langfitt. Hi, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT: Hi, Madeleine.
BRAND: Frank, John Edwards is substantially behind Senators Clinton and Obama in overall polling. He's doing quite well though with big labor. What's working for him there?
LANGFITT: Well, what's really paying off is he's just made a tremendous effort with labor now for over two years. He's walked a lot of picket lines and he's really appealing to industrial unions like the steel workers, which have about 1.2 million members and retirees.
And among the major candidates in the Democratic primary, he's been the most critical of trade, and so industrial unions are really gravitating towards that because they've lost so many jobs overseas. What he's hoping is that this kind of support is going to give him more credibility and lift him out of this third position.
BRAND: And the frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, what about them? Where are they with labor?
LANGFITT: Well, Hillary Clinton has two smaller pieces of support from labor unions, including the machinists and the transportation workers. And Senator Obama doesn't have any yet. And that's really no surprise. You know, Senator Obama's message has been much more about transformation, changing the way Washington works.
And that has appealed to a lot of elites in the party - doctors, lawyers, people like that. He's not been as strong on sort of lunch-bucket issues like health care and the off-shoring of jobs, which tend to really appeal to more middle-class and more working-class voters who've been very concerned about those issues.
The other thing is that people know Senator Clinton a lot better. You know, she had eight years in the White House. And her husband is helpful. I was talking to a major union leader just a few weeks ago who described getting a call from Bill Clinton, who was saying, oh, I'm just calling to talk.
You know, and the union leader just laughed because he knew that President Clinton would be calling about for an endorsement sooner or later. And I don't think you can underestimate that kind of influence.
BRAND: Yeah, well, I mean, you know, the question being, does it really matter? You've got Obama and Clinton in first and second place in most polls and Edwards is nowhere near them. So does it really matter what big labor says or what it does?
LANGFITT: Well, there's no question labor doesn't have the kind of influence that it had if you went back to the '50s and '60s when, you know, at least a third of workers in America were members of unions. It's now dramatically smaller than that.
And one of the things in the primary is the unions often, while they're called organized labor, they're not that organized during the primaries. They tend to split their votes. What you saw last time around in 2004 is a number of big unions backed the wrong horses. They went with Richard Gephardt and Howard Dean. And of course it was John Kerry who came through.
And there's no sign here that anyone's going to run the table either this time around. But they can have influence in particular places. I mean, I think it's going to be very interesting to look at Nevada because the Culinary Union is going to have a lot of influence there in Las Vegas. And it's going to be an early primary state.
What you see more of is actually when you get into the general election, when they're behind one big candidate, particularly in Rust Belt states like Ohio and Michigan, they can really turn out the voters and they can really help in a general.
BRAND: NPR's labor correspondent Frank Langfitt. Thank you very much.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it.
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