Behind Obama's Union Comeback

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Eric Thayer / Getty

A volunteer for Barack Obama canvasses in Columbus, Ohio.

Last August, at the end of a sticky Iowa day, Barack Obama addressed the Hawkeye Labor Council at its annual dinner outside Cedar Rapids. The applause at his entrance was on par with that given to Hillary Clinton, who spoke just before him, but noticeably less enthusiastic than the welcome bestowed on John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich. Then, five minutes into his speech, a man in the audience gave Obama a very different kind of welcome, shouting at him, "You've never worked a day in your life!"

The incident was one of the few times in this 13-month campaign that Obama's actually been heckled, and he politely laughed it off as the man's embarrassed comrades hustled him out of the hall. The scene was indicative, though, of the Illinois Senator's shaky first steps with labor. A year ago, many pundits predicted that John Edwards' populist message and tireless union wooing could earn him the bulk of labor endorsements, with Hillary Clinton's establishment mantle securing the rest. Most blue-collar workers didn't know what to make of the upstart Obama, who didn't help matters by skipping one early labor forum due to a scheduling conflict — and falling flat in several others.

Obama since has waged a long, quiet campaign for the support of national unions, emphasizing his community organizer past and the strong, virtually unified support he has received from their Illinois chapters. And in the last seven weeks the campaign has begun to reap the fruits, picking up new endorsements and getting close to neutralizing any advantage with organized labor that Clinton appeared to enjoy. Seven national unions, including the United Food and Commercial Workers, Unite HERE and the five-million member Change To Win coalition of unions — which includes the powerful Service Employees International and Teamsters unions — have all thrown their support behind Obama. The nods, and the tens of thousands of Ohio volunteers that come with them, could prove to be just enough to help swing the Buckeye State for Obama, and effectively sew up the nomination at the same time.

One of those volunteers is Frank Thornton, a 36-year-old organizer for the SEIU, who spent a recent typically snowy, windy Cleveland afternoon knocking on union household doors in the old Italian neighborhood known as "the flats." "Well, I was for Hillary but Obama says a lot of things I like to hear so I'm still on the fence," said Sherry Rowland, waving Thornton into her living room. "I feel like they've both saying the same things, though."

Thornton jumped in. "Well, take NAFTA, they're both saying the same things now, but that wasn't always the case." Rowland, 48, a member of a school board union, nodded — she says she's seen outsourcing destroy whole Cleveland neighborhoods since President Bill Clinton pushed through the North American Free Trade Act in 1993. By the time Thornton left, Rowland was "leaning toward Obama."

In Ohio, which has lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing and blue-collar jobs over the past fifteen years, NAFTA has become one of the most contentious issues between the Clinton and Obama campaigns, which has done its best to try and link the former First Lady to her husband's trade legacy. Clinton, like Obama, now supports amending NAFTA with enforceable environmental and labor standards, although at the time of its passage, and in at least one of her subsequent best-selling books, she hailed NAFTA as an achievement.

On the eve of the primary, NAFTA became an even bigger lightning rod, as the Clinton campaign seized on media reports that Obama's senior economic adviser had privately told Canadian consular officials not to take the candidate's anti-NAFTA rhetoric all that seriously. At a news conference Monday morning, Clinton said "I don't think people should come to Ohio and tell the people of Ohio one thing and then have your campaign tell a foreign government something else behind closed doors." After its adviser claimed his conversation had been misconstrued by Canadian officials, the Obama campaign fired back against Clinton, saying that she "knows full well that she's not telling the truth on this story."

Still, it's not clear how much all the shouting back and forth will change Ohio voters' notions about the candidates' positions on trade. Leaving his shift as a driver for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mike DiCillo stopped to chat with fellow Teamsters campaigning for Obama outside the newspaper's gates, one of hundreds of so-called worksite visits the union is doing daily across Ohio. DiCillo, 47, is planning to vote for Obama on Tuesday, in large part because of Bill Clinton. "The Teamsters endorsed Bill Clinton and then he gave us NAFTA," said the 22-year union member, chuffing on a cigarillo in the 36-degree weather. "I just don't trust her. She lies worse than her husband. She said NAFTA back then was one of the best things he ever did. Now she wants to rewrite it? She'll say anything."

The Teamsters, like many unions, waited until former North Carolina Senator John Edwards dropped out of the race before endorsing. "We waited for Edwards to get out of the race, that changed the dynamic when he got out," said Jimmy Hoffa Jr., head of the Teamsters. His union did a third poll of their members after Edwards left the race. The first two had Edwards, Clinton and Obama all within the margin of error of one another. The last poll had Obama leading Clinton by double digits. Andy Stern, SEIU president, said his union saw similar results in its internal polls of members. "The polls showed what we were feeling, that there was a surge going on amongst our members like there was in the country for Senator Obama," Stern said. "In the beginning he was not so well known as Senator Clinton, he was one of nine candidates. But after 20 debates we really got to know him."

The nation's largest umbrella labor organization, the AFL-CIO, has yet to endorse a candidate, though they freed member unions to endorse whomever they wished. So far 12 of those unions have picked Clinton, including the powerful American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees and the American Federation of Teachers; just five chose Obama.

When asked about the recent spate of union endorsements of Obama, Harold Ickes, one of Clinton's top strategists, said, "Well, we'd rather have the endorsements than not, but those unions made their decisions. Senator Clinton has a very strong union base...They will be putting resources in. We have sufficiently strong resources to run a very, very strong, very, very vigorous campaign in the state."

It wasn't until Super Tuesday, in Georgia and his home state of Illinois, that Obama started to win the union vote. Since then, though, he's won labor in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. And, in a resounding victory that could presage a come-from-behind win in Ohio, Obama won Wisconsin 58% to Clinton's 41%, evenly splitting the union vote in a state where a third of Democratic primary voters come from union households; by contrast, 44% of Ohio Democratic voters come from union households.

Still, ever mindful of downplaying expectations, the Obama campaign is quick to stress that Ohio has been an uphill fight for them. "Two months ago we were down by 20 points here," said Ben LaBolt, Obama's Ohio spokesman. "And we're still behind in the polls. This was always going to be a tough state for us." Indeed, not only does Obama still trail the New York Senator by 4 percentage points, according to a Real Clear Politics average of Ohio polls, but amongst union voters he trails her 56% to 34% in the latest Cleveland Plain Dealer poll, conducted February 27-29. Either way, Obama can already claim one crucial victory; by effectively splitting labor's endorsements with Clinton, he has prevented her from solidifying what was supposed to be a reliable part of her base.