Unions Split in Illinois Primary

Obama, Hynes Vying for Senate Backing

Posted November 12, 2003 at 6:51pm

In the Illinois 2004 Democratic Senate primary, state Sen. Barack Obama is on the verge of scoring what could best be called the “Howard Dean” of labor endorsements.

Just as the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees endorsed Dean’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination Wednesday, SEIU is expected to announce its support for Obama on Monday. AFSCME is considered highly likely to follow suit in January.

The American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers’ union in Illinois, representing 90,000 educators, endorsed Obama last week.

Taken alone, garnering endorsements from two of the largest and most powerful unions under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO is a noteworthy feat. But in the context of both the presidential and Illinois Senate races, the combined support of the two rival unions is also viewed as a blow to Dean’s and Obama’s opponents, who had counted on the support of organized labor.

Much like Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who has staked his presidential bid on the support of labor in key states like Iowa, Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes (D) is also counting on the support of labor to help push his Senate bid over the top.

Hynes, the only candidate in Illinois who has been elected statewide, is considered the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, while at this point Obama appears to be positioned as the insurgent candidate in the primary, much the same as Dean was earlier this year.

“There’s do doubt that one of the premises for the Hynes’ campaign is that that they were going to have the unified support of labor,” said Chicago-based strategist David Axelrod, who is working for Obama’s campaign. “[Now] several major pieces of the labor movement are supporting Obama. … I think it’s a great boost for us and it certainly defies the early conventional wisdom.”

For its part, the Hynes campaign has downplayed Obama’s labor support and touted Hynes’ endorsement by unions that they say represent more than 700,000 workers statewide.

Hynes spokeswoman Chris Mather maintained that the campaign had expected all along that other candidates in the nine-person Democratic primary field would be able to get some labor support.

“The overwhelming majority of labor is with Dan Hynes in this race,” Mather said. “We feel confident about where we are today — the support that we have and the support that we’re going to have.”

Hynes has the backing of the carpenters, electrical workers and Teamsters, among other industrial unions, in addition to the United Food and Commercial Workers, a service employee union.

Mather said Hynes is working hard to get more labor unions behind the campaign “and obviously [to] secure the endorsement of the AFL-CIO.”

The biggest blow to Hynes could come in January, when the state’s AFL-CIO meets to vote on who they will back in the race, if anyone at all. The group has already delayed the Senate endorsement vote once, and it is Obama’s hope that by January an endorsement in the race will be seen as improbable.

“In labor, everybody knows that it’s easier to block than to get it,” said one Obama campaign strategist. “The idea is to get enough to where [Hynes] can’t get two-thirds” of the support of AFL-CIO membership.

“Part of Dan Hynes’ logic to winning this race is that he’s the machine guy,” the strategist added.

The AFL-CIO is scheduled to conduct Senate candidate interviews Monday, the same day SEIU is expected to announce its endorsement at a news conference. The Illinois board of directors voted on the Senate endorsement last week.

Obama has chaired the state Senate’s Health Committee since January and in the Legislature he has largely carried the water of the service employees’ union, so their endorsement of his Senate bid comes as little surprise.

“SEIU has had a long and close relationship with Barack Obama,” one Illinois SEIU official said. “He’s somebody who might need to be introduced to the rest of the state and the county, but he doesn’t need to be introduced to our members.”

Meanwhile, AFSCME’s executive council in Illinois has already voted on who they plan to endorse in the Senate race, but no public announcement is expected until January.

Obama is also hoping to get the backing of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union.

“It’s a little similar to Gephardt and Dean,” acknowledged one Obama campaign operative. “He has more of the standard call labor unions and we have what you’d call the progressives.”

The SEIU official likened the division in labor to a divide between the older, machine-type labor groups and the more political, activist unions.

“It’s the old labor movement and the new labor movement,” the official said, explaining that the activist union members are working more directly with the elected leaders. “It just leads to different results.”

“I don’t know what they’re going to do,” Axelrod said, referring to the AFL-CIO endorsement. “I think it would be good for the labor movement to let the primary happen and then support the nominee.”

Still, he conceded that he wasn’t sure that Obama could overcome the long-held relationship labor leaders have had with the Hynes family.

Hynes’ father is former state Senator and current Cook County ward leader and is a political power in his own right.

“Whether we could overcome those relationships and basically have an open primary remains to be seen,” Axelrod said.