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Unions bitterly divided in race

A tight Clinton-Obama contest has raised the stakes for organized labor -- and no place higher than in Nevada.

January 13, 2008|Tom Hamburger and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

LAS VEGAS — The tight race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama has opened surprisingly deep and bitter divisions in the ranks of organized labor, as rival union leaders fly planeloads of last-minute volunteers into key states, accuse each other of trying to disenfranchise members, and even launch open attacks on rival Democratic candidates.

In Nevada, which holds its caucuses Saturday, unions backing Clinton are crying foul because some caucuses will be in casinos and hotels where a pro-Obama union's members predominate -- helping that union's members and potentially discouraging others.

Meanwhile, inside the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has endorsed the New York senator and is leading the charge for her in Nevada, several officers are protesting the union's decision to run negative ads against the Illinois senator.

"This race has taken on more intensity than we have seen in the past," said Karen Ackerman, AFL-CIO political director and a veteran of numerous presidential campaigns. Other union leaders lament the vitriolic conflicts they say are developing between unions and worry that the effects could linger into the November campaign.

Organized labor is probably the single-most important part of the Democratic Party's election machinery, providing thousand of campaign workers and millions of dollars for sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts and others. Though unions have divided over presidential candidates in the past, labor insiders say the closeness of the Clinton-Obama race has made this year's divisions unusually bitter.

It has also made the process much more expensive and thus raised the stakes for union leaders and their members.

Many labor leaders, including Ackerman, say this year's competition is healthy, a sign of how badly Democrats want to retake the White House. They predict unions' support for the Democratic nominee will be all the stronger in November.

That may prove true.

Democrats' hostility toward the Bush administration is a powerful force for unity. But pre-nomination splits have not always healed. In 1980, when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts challenged President Carter for the party's nomination, the split contributed to Ronald Reagan's victory. And Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey after Democrats split over the Vietnam War.

If Obama becomes the nominee, "it could dampen enthusiasm" among Clinton's union backers because of gnawing public disagreements, said Lawrence R. Scanlon Jr., the political director of AFSCME, which had already flown 100 paid organizers to Nevada and planned to add 100 more.

Despite his concern, Scanlon was optimistic about November. "Time heals wounds," he said. "There is no choice for us among the Republicans."

Still, as rival union groups jockey to help their chosen candidates, elbows can fly.

Interunion tension may be most visible in Nevada, where Clinton and Obama hope for gains after splitting Iowa and New Hampshire. And Nevada, which this year will be the third state to select Democratic delegates, ranks among the most unionized Western states with more than 13% of all workers belonging to labor organizations.

That's why AFSCME is pulling out all the stops for Clinton, and Obama hopes for a major lift from the endorsement last week of the Culinary Workers of America, which has a substantially larger presence in Nevada than any other union. It represents about 60,000 hotel, casino and other service workers. Nevada has only 500,000 registered Democrats.

The Culinary Workers' ability to organize and deliver votes has been legendary in the labor movement. Under their contract, its members are eligible for as long as six months of leave from their jobs to do political work; the union pays their salaries during that time. As of this weekend, about 200 members were working as paid organizers for Obama -- close to the number AFSCME will have working for Clinton.

The most vivid example of the Culinary Workers' potential impact may turn out to be in the nine caucus sessions held in casinos. The arrangement was approved publicly by the state Democratic Party months before the union endorsed Obama. But opponents are now raising concerns because nearly all unionized casino workers are Culinary Workers members.

Members of the union will get time off -- some with pay -- to take part in the caucuses.

The reaction of unions that don't support Obama has been sharp.

The Nevada State Education Assn., which has not endorsed a candidate, filed suit late Friday, saying the casino caucuses provided an unfair advantage to the Culinary Workers. Officials in other unions, while not joining in the suit, denounced the process -- some in virulent terms.

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