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September 16, 2014

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Unions’ political clout dimmer in this year’s races

Democrats’ traditional allies poorer, less popular than in 2008

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Sam Morris

AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Treasurer Danny Thompson speaks last week at a news conference and rally to urge congressional leaders to create jobs for Nevadans.

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Nevada Democrats are distancing themselves from labor unions this election season, signaling a shift in the relationship between the party and its longtime allies.

The reasons are both political — unions have fallen in the eyes of the public during the recession — and economic — labor’s pockets aren’t as deep as they once were, cutting into funding for political activities.

The candidates still see value in union endorsements, and sources say Democrats are hitting them up for campaign contributions. But how they use the political capital of union endorsements has shifted.

Endorsements have been released on campaign websites rather than at splashy news conferences. Members-only e-mail blasts have replaced glossy mailers from candidates. Door-to-door visits supersede radio ads.

Rory Reid, the Democratic nominee for governor, has held campaign events with teachers. But he notably did not invite representatives of the teachers union — a group that has endorsed him over GOP nominee Brian Sandoval — to the unveiling of his education plan.

As he campaigns for re-election, Assembly Majority Leader John Oceguera, the Democrat in line to be speaker and a North Las Vegas firefighter, has called for making it easier to fire teachers, an issue that puts him at odds with the union.

Reid, chairman of the Clark County Commission, has vocally challenged the county firefighters union for what he says is a reluctance to scale back labor costs. The union has responded by going door-to-door against him.

Some political observers have suggested the firefighters’ opposition to Reid might be a political boon, casting the candidate in the role of taxpayer-friendly tough negotiator. It’s a sharp contrast to two years ago when police and fire union endorsements were seen as essential gold stars in local government races.

Fred Lokken, professor of political science at Truckee Meadows Community College, said labor has been quieter this campaign than in the past. In particular, there is resentment toward public employees unions, and that has demoralized their membership, he said.

“They feel kicked,” he said. “This is not a glory time for them.”

Union leaders and campaigns are reluctant to publicly acknowledge the shifting relationship. Democratic candidates don’t want to alienate a key constituency — they still need their votes and assistance getting supporters to the polls — and unions don’t want to admit they have an image problem.

And to be sure, candidates have made some low-key appearances with unions. Reid held a round table this summer in Reno with teachers and union leadership. His father, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, held a public event with law enforcement. Several candidates have held informational forums with union members.

Still, polls show the political reasons behind the shifting dynamic, as the public’s view of unions has fallen to the lowest levels in decades. Only 41 percent had a favorable opinion of unions this year, down from 58 percent in 2007, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Six in 10 people said labor unions have too much power.

Contributing to their lower profile, unions lack the resources that supported their political efforts in recent years. Their members are struggling with unemployment — the construction trades have been particularly hard-hit — and money to donate to political campaigns is in short supply.

In the 2008 election cycle unions had the financial resources to hire campaign workers, book large media buys and file lawsuits to try to dictate where people could caucus. Unions this year are keeping their budgets in mind and taking a more subdued approach to campaigning.

“As a function of the economy, union members are somewhat less active this political cycle than they have been in the past,” said Dan Hart, a Democratic political consultant and adviser to the state’s teachers union. He attributed the different role to the economic slump and members “more concerned about putting bread on the table than what’s happening in the political arena.”

They still want to exert their influence, they’re just doing it more quietly, experts said.

The Culinary Union has about 80 people on leave from their jobs to canvass in Nevada. At the height of the Obama campaign in 2008, it had about 100. The state AFL-CIO for months has been conducting phone banks for Reid, sending out mailers and visiting members’ job sites.

“They can probably focus on a few less races,” said Billy Vassiliadis, a Democratic political consultant.

Most recently, the AFL-CIO held an event at the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign to underscore Harry Reid’s job-creating efforts. The majority leader did not attend.

“Harry Reid is the top of the ticket,” said Danny Thompson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada AFL-CIO, when asked why other Democrats weren’t highlighted at the event. The group has also endorsed Democratic incumbent Rep. Dina Titus.

Unions say they are focused on ground efforts and educating their ranks about the candidates in the hope of swaying votes Democratic. Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate, has reached out to unemployed members to encourage the jobless to vote for Democrats.

In 2008, unions helped drive turnout, which far exceeded expectations. Democrats hope they can do the same this year.

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  1. To all of the union bashers:
    Where do you think you would be without the unions ? You would be working for pennies,10 or 12 hours a day without overtime compensation,no healthcare,no holidays,etc.
    Get rid of the unions and you will be right back to the "sweat shops" of 100 years ago...

    Retired UNION and voting for Harry Reid,again !

  2. I have long believed that it should prohibited for a public employee union to endorse or campaign on behalf of any candidate that can affect their contract negotiations. That is a blatant conflict of interest.

  3. The Unions will have their say in elections. Everyone complains about the Union Bosses and the corruption, well isn't like our government only not quite as corrupt. The members control, to some extent, what the Labor groups do and the members are voters. If it wasn't for the Labor Unions the average worker would be getting be nothing more than starvation wages because our employers have been crooked and greedy.

    Without Unions their would not be a housing crisis because no one could afford one, so why build them. Their would not be a infrastructure problem because no one could afford a car, so we would not need new roads or bridges or an auto industry. We could reduce our oil dependency because no one could afford gas. The airline industry would disappear because no one could afford to fly.
    Look what we achieved with Republicants, their goals is to put us their one way or the other.

  4. Programmers of the world, UNITE!

    What could a union possibly offer to me that is better than what I have? :)

    Besides, if programmers ever were to organize they would be replaced immediately by the next group of high school seniors, if not freshmen.

    And what political leanings would such a union have? My guess would be Libertarian at best since good programmers are highly independent, egotistical and not entirely sane to begin with.

  5. And, the blame is----------BUSH! He strikes again, after 4 years of Democrat control of Congress and 2 years of Obama. WOW!------Oh, wait, it's union trouble this time.---nevermind

  6. boftx: What did unionism do to schools?--the auto makers?--public service workers?-- etc? Answer: They took the dues, used it to promote pro-union candidates in DC, which gave kick backs to the unions, which......Get it? The workers got wages and benefits that the corporations couldn't afford, drove the companies to near-bankruptcy or full bankruptcy, the feds bailed them out and we taxpayers got stuck with the bill....Get it? So, then the government borrows a trillion to bail-out their cronies, political contributors, UNIONS, takes-over failing industries and passes the bill along to us the schmucks--er voters--who elected them. Now, comes November 2, 2010..............