Union Support Swings Toward Obama
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Coming up, what the historic turnout in the '08 race means or doesn't.
But first, presidential primary campaign has moved on to Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These last two states in particular are known for having large blue-collar populations. Union members and white working-class voters have been a part of Senator Hillary Clinton's core support through most of the campaign. But Senator Barack Obama now appears to be making some inroads.
In this last week or so, he's racked up three major union endorsements, including the Teamsters.
NPR's labor correspondent Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT: Tom Buffenbarger leads the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. He's a hardcore Clinton backer. At a rally this week, he describes what he sees as a typical Obama supporter.
Mr. TOM BUFFENBARGER (President, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers): I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing trust fund babies crowding in to hear him speak. This guy won't last a round against the Republican attack machine. He's a poet, not a fighter.
LANGFITT: It's a funny red-meat line. But given recent events, it seems out of date. Since Valentine's Day, Senator Obama has been on a roll with big union endorsements. He's picked up the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Service Employees International, even the Teamsters.
Most Teamsters are still white working-class men, and few of them probably wear Birkenstocks. James Hoffa is the Teamsters president and son of the late Jimmy Hoffa.
Mr. JAMES HOFFA (President, Teamsters Union): You know, the things that Barack Obama is talking about are things that are resonating with the American people. He's talking about issues that are important to working families. He's talking about universal health care, and he's talking about, you know, jobs in America. We've lost three million jobs because of bad trade agreements. And those are the reasons why we're backing him.
LANGFITT: Things weren't always like this. Until recently, Senator Clinton had dominated labor support with a dozen union endorsements. And in forums, she had consistently appealed to working-class concerns. Obama, by contrast, took longer to connect with lunch-bucket Democrats. Last year, he pulled poorly with them, and his visionary message didn't really seem to register.
But Geoff Garin says Obama's changed his approach. Garin is president of Peter Hart Research, a Democratic polling firm.
Mr. GEOFFREY GARIN (President, Peter D. Hart Research Associates): He has been much more proactive in speaking about a specific economic agenda. And that's really what working Americans want to hear is how is an Obama presidency going to fix what's wrong in my life and make life better for me and for my kids?
LANGFITT: For months now, Obama has been talking about core union issues, like legislations that would make it easier to join one. And he's come out against recent free trade deals, like the one with South Korea. Obama's also using vivid anecdotes that speak to workers' fears.
Here's one from this week's TV debate that also takes a jab at Clinton, whose husband backed the North American Free Trade Agreement.
(Soundbite of TV debate)
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): In Youngstown, Ohio, I've talked to workers who have seen their plants shipped overseas as a consequence of bad trade deals like NAFTA, literally seeing equipment unbolted from the floors of factories and shipped to China.
LANGFITT: Union leaders now say they see little difference between the candidates on issues. That's where political momentum comes in.
Lynn Radcliffe is a local leader in the Service Employees International Union. She works for the Cleveland School District.
Her local, 1199, had backed former Senator John Edwards. After he quit the race last month, Radcliffe said the local held a poll on Obama and Clinton.
Ms. LYNN RADCLIFFE (Vice President, Service Employees International Union District 119): It was pretty close.
LANGFITT: Then Obama swept the primaries in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Ms. RADCLIFFE: We just did another polling this past week, I believe it was.
LANGFITT: Okay. And what was the result of that poll?
Ms. RADCLIFFE: Overwhelmingly support of Barack Obama.
LANGFITT: Radcliffe attributes the shift to Obama's charisma and his win streak.
Ms. RADCLIFFE: I think what it did was made some people who may have, still, been on the fence to really say, you know what? This is what we need to do. He's got the momentum. He's talking about things that are important to us.
LANGFITT: So what impact could labor endorsements have in the final primaries? Unions have far fewer members than they used to, but analysts say they can still turn out voters. And in Ohio, the three unions that just backed Obama have 160,000.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.