- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2014

Labor unions, long a rich source of ground troops for national Democrats’ Election Day victories, are less enthusiastic this year, according to some movement leaders who say they are more focused on state-level races and feel left behind by the party on key issues such as Obamacare.

While public sector unions remain almost universally supportive of congressional Democrats, more traditional labor unions in key industries and key states express frustration with the party or say they haven’t been given a reason to get as deeply involved in the midterm elections.

In Ohio, no U.S. Senate races and few House races are on the ballots to energize unions. Unions also aren’t thrilled with the gubernatorial options the Democrats and Republicans have offered, said Eric Stevenson, an organizer for Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 189 in Columbus.

“A lot of it is midterms — there’s nothing exciting on the ballot here,” he said. “But I think a lot of it is the state Democratic Party [messed] up. In my personal opinion, the choices they made for the top of the tickets — wow. Did they vet any of these people beforehand or what?”

AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer said the prospect of a Republican-controlled Senate isn’t as potent a motivating factor for voters as trying to draw a contrast between the parties.

“We’re obviously not making the argument about Republican control as much as we are about [what] the individual candidates stand for,” he said last month on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program. “We are almost exclusively focused on grass-roots activism and person-to-person contact and building on the labor movement that exists in each place, in each location. So we’re obviously going to be putting more effort, able to put more effort into states like Michigan, Alaska, Iowa, Colorado and then in some of the other states.”

Others labor leaders said lingering concerns over President Obama’s agenda are what have dampened enthusiasm.

Terry O’Sullivan, general president for the Laborers’ International Union of North America, has consistently criticized Mr. Obama for stalling on approving the Keystone XL pipeline, which has produced a major split within Democratic ranks between unions and environmentalists. Eyeing the construction jobs the project would generate, many unions have long pushed Mr. Obama to approve the Canada-to-Texas pipeline.

Mr. O’Sullivan said the administration also has not addressed labor concerns about Obamacare’s treatment of high-end health care plans, the so-called Cadillac-tax, which will hit some union-negotiated plans particularly hard when it takes effect later this decade.

“I certainly think that it’s going to affect turnout,” Mr. O’Sullivan told The Hill this year. “You have people that are disillusioned and angry; they either vote a different way or they don’t vote at all.”

Despite the grumbling, some union organizations vow to back Democrats.

The AFL-CIO has deployed its resources in key states, and the American Federation of Teachers plans to spend more than $20 million on elections this year, more than twice the $8.2 million spent in 2008.

AFT President Randi Weingarten even campaigned in Alaska with Sen. Mark Begich, hoping to boost the Democrat as he tries to fend off a stiff challenge from Republican Dan Sullivan.

Alan Hughes, president of the Arkansas chapter of the AFL-CIO, said efforts are “just as strong as ever” in boosting incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark L. Pryor in a tough race and candidates in a host of other state-level races.

“We’re sending our guys — they’re doing door to door, they’re doing phone banks,” he said. “We know how important it is to keep a balance on the Senate.”

Indeed, national unions that represent government workers such as teachers generally seem to be more engaged.

“There are schools in every single district,” said Bob Bruno, director of the labor education program at the University of Illinois’ School of Labor and Employment Relations. “You’re not going to find a steel plant in each one.”

Local unions — particularly in industries hit hard by the Great Recession — said they are focused less on politics and more on basic issues such as finding jobs for members.

“Just for us, we’re trying to get stuff going with work, so we haven’t had time to do anything with the political parts,” said Eugene Wilson, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 700 in Arkansas, home to the race between Mr. Pryor and his Republican challenger, Rep. Tom Cotton. “I mean, we really haven’t done anything.”

Not all public sector unions are falling completely in line for Democrats, either.

The International Association of Firefighters is heavily involved in the most competitive governor’s and U.S. Senate races this year, but the group is withholding support for two Democrats, Sens. Kay R. Hagan of North Carolina and Mark R. Warner of Virginia, because of their 2010 “nay” votes on a bill that would have expanded collective bargaining rights for public safety employees.

“It is one thing to disagree on an issue, but it is another thing for somebody to really fail to fulfill a commitment, and if you do that with us, then you’re just not going to be entitled to our support and that happens to be the case with the two senators from North Carolina and Virginia,” said IAFF President Harold Schaitberger.

The disillusionment is hurting Democrats in some key Senate races. In Kentucky, for example, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, won the endorsements of two local correctional officer chapters of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Stephen Creech, first vice president of AFGE Local 4051 in Manchester, said he has talked with other local shops that are leaning more toward Republicans this year.

“Democrats have not done anything extremely well with what we [were] used to in the Clinton era,” Mr. Creech said. “Federal employees are often the scapegoat, even with the Democratic majority that we’ve had.”


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