Labor unions put heat on Democrats

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While conservatives and “tea party” activists have made headlines pressuring Republican candidates from the right this election season, a number of moderate Democrats are under attack in primary battles and even third-party challenges from their labor allies on the left.

The AFL-CIO and other labor groups have been a mainstay of the Democratic coalition, but have not always seen eye to eye with the Obama administration or with a number of centrist Democrats - differences highlighted in the lengthy battle over health care, in debates over education reform, and in stalled efforts to change key labor laws.

In Arkansas, the AFL-CIO is openly working to defeat incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln, an opponent of the health bill’s public option plan, in the May 18 Democratic primary. Hawaii labor unions have broken with the national Democratic Party over which candidate to back in a special House election, giving Republicans an opening to win the seat. And in North Carolina, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is helping to form a third party designed in part to challenge state Democratic lawmakers who voted against the health care law.

“The next group of people going to Washington needs to be looking out for the pocketbooks of the middle class, not for the profits of insurance companies,” said Greg Rideout, spokesman for the newly formed North Carolina First party.

The party must collect and submit roughly 85,000 signatures to local election officials by May 17, then have the certified petitions to the state by June 1.

Three of the 34 congressional Democrats who voted against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act - Reps. Heath Shuler, Mike McIntyre and Larry Kissell - are from North Carolina. The new party has yet to decide whether it will mount a challenge against each of them.

“Right now, we’re just trying to put ourselves in a position to get on the ballot,” said Mr. Rideout, adding he had no up-to-date signature tally. “We’re not at the point where we’re looking for candidates.”

None of the congressmen returned a call seeking comment.

The AFL-CIO - the largest and most influential labor umbrella group - has reportedly targeted 20 incumbent Democrats, including Mrs. Lincoln. Labor officials told the Wall Street Journal last month they planned to exceed the record $53 million spent in the 2008 election season in the 2010 campaigns.

Theunion group’s Arkansas chapter has recently distributed a mailer - complete with a photo of a padlocked factory - that reads: “Don’t Let Blanche Lincoln Export Your Job.” Three individual unions each pledged $1 million to the campaign of Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, Mrs. Lincoln’s primary opponent.

Arkansas AFL-CIO President Alan Hughes said the union had previously backed Mrs. Lincoln but her voting record has become “unacceptable.” She has earned the ire of organized labor for opposing “card check” legislation designed to make it easier for unions to organize a work site.

Top labor officials have called card check their top legislative priority and have expressed frustration that President Obama and the large congressional Democratic majorities have been unable to pass it.

“It was one thing after another,” Mr. Hughes said.

Mrs. Lincoln, who polls say already faced a tough battle in the general election, has touted her independence in a state where both Mr. Obama and the new health care law are unpopular.

A spokeswoman for Mrs. Lincoln said the two-term lawmaker could win despite the labor effort against her.

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