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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s New Labor Muscle

Back in October, the executive board of the Service Employees International Union met to weigh an endorsement. They’d been courted the most by John Edwards, but Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had both lobbied the union as well, and the chapters in Illinois and New York were firmly in the camps of their respective senators. Unable to make a decision, the leadership of SEIU declined to make an endorsement before the early primaries, and it was scored as a major loss for the senator from North Carolina.
On Friday, SEIU announced that the union had made a decision — with Edwards out of the race, they were backing Barack Obama.
Politically, the SEIU endorsement is important. It has around 2 million total members, second in size among unions only to the National Education Association — which has not picked a candidate. Leaders estimate that the union has 150,000 members in the states with primaries scheduled to take place over the next two months, and Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Rhode Island, and Oregon have particularly strong chapters. Its political action committee is also one of the biggest in the country, expected to raise $30 million in this election cycle.
Obama had previously been supported by the state SEIU chapters in Nevada and California. He lost Nevada narrowly, and lost California by a considerable margin. But those endorsements came just days before their elections, and probably weren’t a good test of SEIU’s organizing abilities.
SEIU should make an immediate difference with independent expenditures. On top of her initial fundraising advantage, Hillary Clinton has received significant support from outside groups in the early primary states. So far, these organizations have spent $5.2 million on her behalf, with the largest contributions coming from Clinton’s own labor backers — American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the American Federation of Teachers — and from Emily’s List. Separate groups have spent $1.5 million supporting Obama. Now, Ben Smith is reporting that SEIU is preparing to dedicate up to $5 million in independent spending on Obama’s behalf in Ohio and Texas. Whatever dollar advantage Hillary Clinton had there is likely gone.
For years, SEIU has worked to cultivate strong ties in the nation’s immigrant communities, and the union has a large Latino membership. Support from Spanish-speakers put Clinton over the top in California, Arizona, and New Mexico, and she is counting on support from Latinos in Texas to offset Obama’s advantage in the African-American community. If Obama can close the gap among those voters, or even narrow it by 4 or 5 points, Clinton’s path to victory is much more difficult. Starting Tuesday, SEIU will make an enormous effort to influence their Latino members to support the Illinois senator.
Support from the Service Employees could have big repercussions in the wider world of labor, as well. In 2005, SEIU was one of seven of unions that came together to form the Change to Win coalition. In January, Obama was endorsed by another Change to Win union, UNITE HERE, which represents hotel, restaurant, apparel and laundry workers. This last Thursday, a third, the United Food and Commercial Workers, threw its support behind the Illinois senator. A fourth, the United Farm Workers, endorsed Sen. Clinton in January. And the other three unions in the coalition — the Teamsters, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America — have yet to endorse a candidate. But that could change: the entire coalition is scheduled to hold a conference call next week to determine whether to make its first joint endorsement.
If labor support for Obama manifests itself at the polls, it could shake up the demographics of the race in a potentially decisive way. To this point, Hillary Clinton has won a majority of voters without college degrees, and those with incomes under $50,000. If Obama can add union households to his coalition of African-Americans and affluent white voters, he could have an advantage in nearly every state that remains on the primary calendar.

2 comments on “Obama’s New Labor Muscle

  1. Matt on

    That was probably a poor word-choice on my part. As you mention, the exits in each of those states polled people who identified themselves as Latinos — not Spanish-speakers. Clearly that does include voters from many different generations, and it’s not a demographic which is monolithic in any sense.
    But it’s worth mentioning that both campaigns are running Spanish-language ads in Texas right now, and have done so elsewhere. It’s worth mentioning that, in California, Hillary Clinton won Orange County 56 percent to 38 percent. The biggest city in Orange County is Santa Ana, which The Nation has called ‘the most Spanish-speaking city in the US.’ My language was imprecise, and I regret that. But plenty of citizens who regularly speak Spanish are voting in this primary.

  2. links on

    The article claims that “Spanish speakers” put Clinton over the top in Arizona, California, New Mexico, etc. How does the author know these people were “Spanish speakers” as distinct from “Latinos” or “Hispanics?” Was knowledge of the Spanish language a category in the exit polls? This is the first time I have seen knowledge of a language used as a demographic category to analyze U.S. politics. In what sense were these people Spanish speakers? Do they speak Spanish at home or is Spanish their mother tongue? What this means is not clear. Some Hispanics/Latinos might take issue with being treated as a group whose public identity is specified by linguistic preference.


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