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Experts: Unions can play powerful role in elections

| Sunday, May 5, 2013, 11:21 p.m.

Retired bus driver Charles Watson said he usually sided with his union when it endorsed political candidates who were supportive of transit workers.

But the Amalgamated Transit Union endorsement doesn't mean as much now that he's retired, Watson said.

“I vote the way I think it would benefit my family,” said Watson, 74, of Manchester.

Labor unions have weighed in heavily on the race for Pittsburgh mayor. Twelve back former state Auditor General Jack Wagner of Beechview, and 11 endorse City Councilman Bill Peduto of Point Breeze.

The other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the May 21 primary are state Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District and community activist A.J. Richardson of Sheraden. Neither has secured a labor endorsement.

Wheatley spokesman Daren Berringer declined to comment for this story. Wheatley told the Tribune-Review last month that if he were to win, “I would have a clean slate of being able to set a table for what's best for our city and what's best for our citizens because I haven't promised anybody anything, other than what I thought was best.”

Political observers say union backing can strongly affect a primary if union leaders galvanize members to vote for endorsed candidates.

“Sometimes members support candidates endorsed by their leadership, sometimes they don't,” said Mike Mikus, campaign manager for Democratic congressional candidate Mark Critz of Johnstown, who, despite heavy union support, lost his U.S. House seat in November to Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus of Sewickley.

“If unions are actively supporting somebody and educating members on issues, the percentage of union members that end up voting for the endorsed candidate goes way up,” Mikus said.

About 45 percent of 400 likely Democratic voters surveyed last month for a Tribune-Review poll said they or someone in their household is affiliated with a union. The poll, conducted April 1 and 2 by Susquehanna Polling & Research of Harrisburg, found that Wagner led Peduto among union households by 55 percent to 24 percent. Peduto led in nonunion households, 40 percent to 28 percent.

“A poll is just a snapshot,” Peduto said. “When Jack jumped into the race, he got a lot of support initially. That has changed.”

Wagner's endorsements include the politically active city police and firefighters unions, plus the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66 and Teamsters Local 249. The four unions represent about 60 percent of 3,000 city employees.

“We feel very confident that our endorsements will have significant impact, especially in terms of the building trades and the firefighters, who have a strong reputation for not only educating their members but also providing grass-roots support through volunteers that are members of the union,” said Wagner campaign spokesman J.J. Abbott.

“In a Democratic primary, unions do play a significant role,” Peduto said. “We are working through our unions to help bring their members out to vote.”

Unions backing Peduto include Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers Local 400, Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, and the Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics Local 1, with about 180 members.

SEIU represents about 5,000 city residents working as building custodians and in cafeterias and hospitals, according to Gabe Morgan, the union's Pennsylvania director.

Union officials say they are reaching out to members through phone calls and literature. They're organizing volunteer committees to contact voters on behalf of their endorsed candidates and encouraging members to talk to relatives and neighbors.

“We're really talking about thousands of people who live in and work in the city and really represent a big volunteer force,” Morgan said.

Firefighter Dan Barr, 33, of Lawrenceville said a union endorsement is not the only factor he considers when deciding who will get his vote.

“I weigh and balance everything, and I try to make an informed decision,” Barr said. “I'll take the (union) information into consideration, but I can tell you I'm going to vote for Jack Wagner.”

He said he likes Wagner, 65, “because of who Jack Wagner is.”

Shelia Lewis of Manchester said Peduto, 41, who knocked on her door to ask for a vote, swayed her with his plan to develop early childhood education centers in city neighborhoods.

“I think I'll give Peduto a chance because he did come out and listen to us,” she said.

Union membership has declined steadily over the years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2012, 11.3 percent of wage and salaried workers, or 14.4 million people, belonged to a union. That's down from 17.7 million people, or 20.1 percent of workers, in 1983.

Yet unions can play a powerful role in elections, according to Critz.

A consultant for the national public relations firm EIS Solutions in Johnstown, Critz said the biggest problem he faced in last year's campaign was the $8 million in advertising on behalf of Rothfus. Critz lost by 3.5 percentage points.

“If I didn't have the union support, there is no way in the world I would have had a chance in that race,” Critz said, noting that President Obama lost in the district by 17 percentage points. “I could never overcome the volume of advertising.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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