Do Political Endorsements Diminish Labor's Clout?

The leading Democratic presidential contenders all vie for union support, but if each gets some, does the labor movement lose clout?

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Every election year, labor unions jump into the fray with money and manpower. They usually endorse Democratic candidates at all levels, especially at the top.

Well, this year, all three leading Democratic contenders for the White House have won union endorsements. As NPR's Don Gonyea reports, that could diffuse the labor movement's power to pick the 2008 nominee.

DON GONYEA: Even with the long term trend showing declining union membership among American workers, labor unions remain a potent force in American politics. But just as important are the other things a union can offer - walkers to go door-to-door, workers to pass out leaflets and handle phones. And then there's the money for ads like this one currently running in Nevada which holds its caucuses tomorrow.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Unidentified Woman #1: I didn't know how personal this is for Hillary. What's happening in this country, I just didn't know.

Unidentified Woman #2: We're in a real pickle here in the United States.

GONYEA: This is not an official Hillary Clinton campaign commercial. It's paid for by AFSCME, the big national government employee's union.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Unidentified Man: AFSCME people is responsible for the content of this advertising.

GONYEA: Nevada is a good place to look at union clout. It's one place where unions are actually growing, thanks to a booming hotel and service industry.

David Damore is a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He says the candidate choices that individual labor unions are making seem to reflect divisions within the labor movement nationally in recent years.

Professor DAVID DAMORE (Political Science, University of Nevada): Too many unions that had split from the AFL-CIO a few years ago are sort of trying themselves to be much more progressive and trying to engage the new economy. And largely those unions have supported Barack Obama. The more traditional unions - the teachers' unions, the government employees' unions - those unions have stood with Hillary Clinton.

(Soundbite of people chanting)

Unidentified Group: Obama. Obama. Obama.

GONYEA: These are members of the Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas, which last week endorsed Barack Obama.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): I am fired up...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: Oh, I just love this union.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: I mean, I love this union.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, Senator John Edwards portrays himself aggressively as the pro-union candidate. He, too, is bringing in endorsements like this Las Vegas announcement from Douglas McCarron of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

Mr. DOUGLAS McCARRON (President, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America): There's an old saying amongst carpenters that you measure twice and you cut once. Well, we've taken the measure of the candidates and we've made our cut. We've looked at John Edward's plan and it is strong.

GONYEA: Edwards also has the United Steelworkers working for him. UNLV's Damore said, the fact that it's a caucus could actually affect how people vote. Caucus participants will be in a room with other union members and may be reluctant to break ranks in full view of their leaders and coworkers. He also notes that the culinary union members are about 40 percent Latino.

Prof. DAMORE: Their union, the largest in the city, endorsed Barack Obama last week. But Hillary Clinton, by all indications, has greater support among Hispanic voters. So they may be sort of torn - which way do I go? Do I vote wearing my Hispanic hat or do I vote wearing my union hat? What are the consequences if I choose to break with my - with the union leaders?

GONYEA: Republicans also welcome union endorsements when they can get them. This past week, Mike Huckabee boasted of having won the backing of the International Painters Union. He cited Ronald Reagan's success with union members and predicted there are plenty of rank-and-file workers out there who are looking for a candidate other than a Democrat.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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