When the seven unions that now make up the Change to Win labor federation left the AFL-CIO in 2005, many of them cited frustration with the overemphasis on campaign-related activism that yielded uncertain payoffs. "We don't think throwing more money into the political process and ignoring organizing will get the job done,” United Food and Commercial Workers International President Joseph Hansen said shortly before the split. “The status quo can't stand." So it is surprising that Change to Win made a high-profile endorsement this year (siding with Barack Obama), while the AFL-CIO has stayed on the sidelines of the Democratic primary.
Judging by the primary results thus far, Change to Win should have stuck with its original cautious approach. By gambling big on its ability to deliver for a single Democratic candidate, the federation has only exposed its political weakness this primary season. The AFL-CIO, on the other hand, seems to have learned its lesson from years of risky primary endorsements; staying out of the primary battle may not prove its influence, but it won’t undermine its capital, either.
When Anna Burger, chair of Change to Win and secretary-treasurer of its largest union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), announced the Obama endorsement in February 21, she hedged no bets in describing what she thought the impact of that endorsement would be. “We think it’s time to bring this nomination process to a close, and we think we can make a difference and get this done,” Burger said, citing the large numbers of Change to Win union members in Texas and Ohio, which then loomed as crucial states in the Democratic primary.
Her language marked a shift from SEIU’s original approach to the primaries, when it pushed candidates to release detailed health care reform plans and to spend a day on the job with SEIU members. Those tactics called significant attention to SEIU’s priorities without costing the union any money or political clout.
But the prospect of playing a decisive role in the primary--a feat that had the potential to bring it enormous political clout--seems to have been irresistible to Change to Win. SEIU in particular, as president Andy Stern suggested, thought that its Obama endorsement could have a ripple effect through Latino communities--a constituency Obama had proved unable to crack, and one with which many SEIU locals had built strong relationships around issues like immigration.
Change to Win’s predicted knockout punch never landed. Hillary Clinton beat Obama by a 2-to-1 margin among Latinos in Texas and by ten points among union members and 14 points among union households in Ohio. In much the same way, the high-profile endorsement from Nevada’s largest union, Culinary Workers Union Local 226 (members of Latino-friendly and Change to Win-affiliated UNITE HERE), failed to deliver the state to Obama. Though Clinton pulled in a narrower margin of union voters--she took 45 percent of their votes, compared to Obama’s 44 percent and John Edwards’s seven percent--she held on to a commanding lead among Latino voters, walking away with 64 percent of their votes.
Anna Burger’s blunt insistence that the Change to Win would play a significant role in delivering the nomination to Obama and ending the primary set up Change to Win to fall short repeatedly, as it has. SEIU 's strongest claim to victory is that their 1,200 members in Wyoming played a pivotal role in handing Obama a win there--hardly the kind of prize the union initially promised to deliver.
Obama’s much-ballyhooed comments about the “bitter” feelings of working class workers may or may not hurt him in Pennsylvania, which had 830,000 union members in 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But even though those union members outnumber the 789,882 Democratic voters who turned out to vote in the 2004 presidential primary, Change to Win's lackluster performance thus does not bode well for their chances of handing Pennsylvania to Obama.
AFL-CIO, which had always made high-profile endorsements during the Democratic primary and followed them up with large investments of time and money on behalf of their chosen candidate, has mostly sat out this year's primary battle. Instead, it has put much of the $53.4 million the federation has pledged to spend on the presidential election into a campaign attacking John McCain’s economic record. The federation launched a website, is holding several hundred town hall meetings on health care in April, plans to make 100,000 phone calls in May, will hold a national door-to-door canvass on May 17, and will have volunteers dogging McCain at every one of his campaign stops. These efforts will strengthen the unions' political clout no matter who ends up winning the Democratic nomination.
Though some Change to Win unions have begun similar efforts, the group has been spending money and paying significant attention on the Democratic primary. As of April 13, SEIU has spent $6.3 million on the primary; its New York-based 1199 branch alone has spent more than $800,000 to turn out SEIU voters for Obama. UNITE HERE has spent almost $100,000 thus far, and the United Food and Commercial Workers, another Change to Win union, has spent almost $600,000. These efforts have not been enough to help Obama win in crucial states, and unlike the AFL-CIO's anti-McCain activities, will not endear the group to Clinton if she clinches the nomination.
To be sure, no matter how poorly Change to Win has performed in this year’s primaries, the unions are not at risk of being abandoned by the eventual Democratic nominee. In a post-election poll in 2006, Peter D. Hart Research Associates found that a staggering 74 percent of union voters pulled the lever for Democratic candidates. And the eventual nominee will surely benefit from the work that unions will be doing to highlight the economic differences between the two parties.
But by overestimating its ability to turn out voters for its endorsed candidate, Change to Win has drawn attention away from the labor movement’s strengths and towards the uncomfortable facts of its campaign weaknesses. Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa’s declaration in 2005, just before his union left the AFL-CIO to join Change to Win, now seems ironic: “[The AFL-CIO’s] idea is to spend more money on politics. We reject that idea.” Their about-face on political involvement is particularly damaging at a time when Democratic majorities in Congress could grow large enough to advance union priorities, and as union membership is experiencing its biggest rise since 1979, unions need to look as strong as possible to turn small advances into real political momentum. As Change to Win continues to find its political footing, its leaders would do well to remember a rule the AFL-CIO seems to be abiding by, at least for the primaries: You cannot lose if you do not play.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a staff correspondent at Government Executive and a regular contributor to National Journal.
By Alyssa Rosenberg