Union with clout stakes its claim on U.S. politics
and Bill Clinton calls to extols his wife’s record

Steven Greenhouse
The New York Times

For an idea of the influence that the Service Employees International Union carries in Democratic politics, consider that former President Bill Clinton phoned a 17-member committee of the union’s New Hampshire operation last Monday to extol his wife’s record on issues that are important to the labor movement.

Mr. Clinton’s seven-minute pitch was just one way in which the Democratic presidential candidates are courting that 1.9 million-member union, whose financial and organizational clout are much-sought prizes not just in the race for the White House but also in Congressional and state contests.

While the national union has not endorsed a presidential candidate, its state councils have been freed to do so.
Those in California, Iowa and nine other states, representing more than one million members, are backing former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

But the other Democratic contenders, including Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, continue to court the union, coveting the practical help it can provide in the primary season and in the general election.

The union movement, led by the service employees and the A.F.L.-C.I.O., has been straining to increase labor’s power after decades of membership decline and efforts by Republicans to win over workers through appeals on national security and social issues.

Within labor, the S.E.I.U. president, Andy Stern, has been especially active in trying to maintain influence. While he has a reputation as divisive — he orchestrated a split with the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in 2005 that some analysts say has set back labor’s efforts to keep a strong voice in politics — he has made his union the nation’s fastest growing over the past decade, and his focus on politics has led the Democratic presidential candidates to court the S.E.I.U. endorsement aggressively.

After the union said it would not consider endorsing anyone who did not put forward a plan for universal health coverage, all the leading Democratic candidates produced one. When it demanded that the candidates spend a day in the shoes of a worker, Mr. Edwards, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton did so, all spending a day with a health care worker.

“We can generate a tremendous army of volunteers when candidates are speaking to issues that are important to us,” Mr. Stern said.

The union has supported Republicans from time to time, sometimes infuriating the Democratic Party in the process. But for the most part, it backs Democrats. The union is expected to collect $40 million for its political action committee, which was the largest in the 2006 campaign. It plans to spend $30 million more in internal funds for getting out the vote and shining a spotlight on lawmakers who have helped thwart its agenda on national issues like expanding the State Child Health Insurance Program.

For the first time, officials say, the union plans to spend as much on House and Senate races as on the presidential one. It is gearing up to help Democrats running for the Senate including Tom Allen in Maine, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and candidates in Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon and Virginia.

Union officials say they will help Democratic candidates for governor in Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina and Washington. And in a move that could make life harder for Democratic incumbents who do not stand by the union on the issues it considers most important, Mr. Stern and his team say they will consider backing primary challengers who are more in line with the union’s agenda.

Known for mobilizing its members

The union is known for mobilizing its members far more than other labor groups, with Mr. Stern predicting that 100,000 members will work as campaign volunteers next year.

“They’re seen as huge players,” said David E. Bonior, the manager of Mr. Edwards’s presidential campaign.

Under Mr. Stern the union has given money to create a national get-out-the-vote operation, a labor-business coalition for universal health coverage and a new group, the Atlas Project, that is developing a plan to help Democrats win in pivotal states next year.

That project is run by three respected Democratic operatives, Steve Rosenthal, Mary Beth Cahill and Michael Whouley. It is examining voting patterns, demographic trends and the last election’s campaign advertisements in Ohio, New Mexico and other swing states. The goal is to give Democratic candidates a strategic plan regarding what issues to focus on and which voters and precincts to focus their get-out-the-vote efforts.

Mr. Stern spends much of his week on politics, engaging in strategy talks at the union’s Washington headquarters, discussing legislation in Congress, conversing with local leaders about what is happening around the country and giving pep talks to the rank and file about the importance of the campaign. He shares much of the strategy and detail work with the union’s secretary-treasurer, Anna Burger.

While Mr. Stern has been a catalyst for unions to do more in politics, his record of success, like all of labour’s, is mixed. The service employees endorsed Howard Dean before the 2004 primaries only to see Mr. Dean’s candidacy come to a quick end after the first voting. The union poured money into an earlier get-out-the-vote effort in 2004, only to see Republicans again outperform it in that area.

This year, the Democratic candidates have courted the union’s members and leaders so assiduously that its executive board could not agree on endorsing a Democrat for the presidential primaries. Mr. Stern says there were too many attractive candidates to choose from, adding that his union was likely to back the party’s eventual nominee with enthusiasm.

‘ . . . anxious and ready for change’

“People are incredibly anxious and ready for change, and we have a series of candidates who are messengers for change,” Mr. Stern said, wearing a purple shirt and tie, his union’s trademark color. “Under normal circumstances, this should be a great year. But in the end, there are two human beings, and lots of things can happen, as you could see with John Kerry and Swift boats.”

Mr. Stern says his union wants to do more to ensure that politicians keep their promises after they are elected.

“We had lot of candidates who said they would do the right thing about the war, but after they got here it was a different story,” he said. “We appreciate accountability. We just can’t elect people and walk away and think it’s going to work out.”

The union fought Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York after he proposed large cuts in health care. In Chicago, it helped run several insurgents for City Council against Democratic incumbents who backed Mayor Richard M. Daley’s veto of a union-backed bill to raise pay for retail workers.

As a potential model, Mr. Stern praised a conservative group, the Club for Growth, lauding the way it seeks to hold Republicans accountable when they break promises to hold down spending and taxes.

He called the Republican presidential candidates “too conservative,” saying they talk a lot about tax cuts for the rich but very little about his goal of rewarding work.

Still, he said his union would continue backing local Republicans who support his union on key issues. He singled out Joseph L. Bruno, the majority leader in the New York Senate, who has repeatedly resisted cuts in health care spending.