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Labor Has Tough Choice in Pennsylvania

For years, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter was organized labor’s best friend in the Republican Conference. But now that the state’s senior Senator is a Democrat, local union leaders said his record might not pass muster in a 2010 primary.

Rep. Joe Sestak’s (D) expected entrance into the Senate race would create a tough choice for labor unions in the state because the two-term Congressman would be a sure vote for their most important piece of legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act.

Before he switched parties, Specter said in a March floor statement that he intended to vote against cloture on EFCA — a reversal from his 2007 vote that effectively killed the legislation in its current state. Local labor leaders were not happy with Specter, who at the time was planning to run in a competitive GOP primary against former Rep. Pat Toomey. According to several labor organizers in Pennsylvania, Specter got an earful from union leaders when he returned to the state during the April recess.

Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bill George, a longtime ally of Specter’s, has seen his organization support the Senator in his last three re-election campaigns. But this time around, George was hesitant to predict whether the AFL-CIO would back Specter in 2010.

“He did give us the vote two years ago, and our rank and file don’t know why he can’t give us the vote now, when it’s exactly the same bill,” George said. “And I can’t explain it to our members.”

The AFL-CIO, with 900,000 members, is the most powerful union in the state, and the vast majority of its ranks are Democrats. Specter earned a 61 percent lifetime voting record from the national AFL-CIO, while Sestak earned a 96 percent rating.

“I think labor is frustrated with [Specter] right now,” former Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.) said. “But if he opposes that bill and Congressman Sestak votes for it, I think that will probably determine who labor supports.”

Hoeffel, who supports Sestak, lost to Specter in the 2004 Senate race. In their statewide matchup five years ago, most labor organizations backed Specter.

“People knew I had a better voting record in terms of percentage than Sen. Specter, but he was their best supporter in the Republican Party, and that was important to them,” Hoeffel said.

Specter’s track record with organized labor hasn’t stopped Sestak from reaching out to unions in his district or in southeastern Pennsylvania.

In his official capacity, Sestak said, he formed a advisory group of about two dozen local union leaders who have met every few months since he was first elected. Sestak also said that while House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was going to recommend him for the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, he requested a spot on the Education and Labor Committee when he came to Congress in 2006.

Outside of his official capacity, Sestak said he has made “courtesy calls” to local and national labor leaders, including what he described as a recent positive meeting with national AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

“But I do find, as I walk around, there are unions that may potentially ... be very supportive of someone who has a stronger labor record, even outside of card check,” Sestak said in a phone interview Tuesday.

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