Obama lures some unions from Hynes
In Senate race, Democrats fight for labor support

By David Mendell
Tribune staff reporter

November 17, 2003

On paper, nothing would seem out of the ordinary for a progressive state senator who has long been a supporter of labor to pick up major union endorsements as he seeks higher office.

But Illinois, a place where political connections and dealmaking reign supreme, is no ordinary state when politics and unions are involved.

So when state Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago) stands before reporters Monday and touts the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union in his bid for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, handicappers of the Senate contest will take notice.

That's because Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, considered by many the favorite candidate of organized labor, has been looking to unions--and their hundreds of thousands of members--as his core constituency. Hynes' political family has a long history with Illinois' unions, and these are the grass-roots organizations that not only were expected to send their members to the polls with a Hynes vote but were supposed to coax others into his camp.

Obama has picked up not only the SEIU endorsement, but also the backing of the second-largest teachers union in Illinois and is expected to garner the support of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME's executive council has voted to endorse Obama, although the union officially will announce its endorsement in January, the state senator said.

"If you think of this in terms of raw numbers and membership, there appears to be a significant division within the AFL-CIO [labor's umbrella group] about who would make the best Senate candidate, and I don't think that's something that was expected," Obama said.

A Hynes spokeswoman, however, said there is nothing unusual about Obama's receiving several union endorsements. Even though Hynes' father, Tom, is a Chicago ward boss with deep union roots and a former president of the Illinois Senate, Hynes expected that some unions would back others in the nine-candidate Democratic field.

"The story here is really that Dan has overwhelming support from 62 labor unions with more than 700,000 members," said spokeswoman Chris Mather.

Obama said that he was not given the opportunity to speak before any of those unions and that he has won the endorsement of each labor union that granted him a chance to pitch his candidacy.

Hynes' supporters said Obama, a state senator from Hyde Park, has worked diligently in the last year--after he decided to run for the U.S. Senate--to please labor. For example, in January, Obama became chairman of the Senate Health Committee, which provided him a close working relationship with SEIU leaders. The union, with more than 100,000 members in Illinois, represents tens of thousands of nursing and other medical workers.

Tom Balanoff, president of the Illinois Council of the SEIU, said the decision between Obama and Hynes was difficult for the union, but "Barack has taken the lead on issues of significant importance to our members. He's also been out there for us when we have been in trouble, during strikes and things like that."

Obama was instrumental in expanding child-care benefits for workers and has been an ardent proponent of universal health-care coverage, Balanoff said. He also was a leader on the so-called hospital report card act, which, among other things, requires hospitals to post staffing levels and mortality rates on the Internet.

Hynes' strategists charged that in order to bring AFSCME to his side, Obama threw his support behind legislation that would require the state to hire 1,000 additional prison guards, who are represented by the union. Mather said Gov. Rod Blagojevich, citing severe budget problems, had opposed the $10.6 million bill as unnecessary and wasteful.

Obama called Hynes' assertion that he traded his support of the bill for the union's endorsement "a red herring."

"AFSCME would have no problem getting any number of Democrats passing that--they don't need me," Obama said. "That's all just spin."

Obama's next labor mission would appear to be garnering no endorsement at all. He hopes to persuade the Illinois AFL-CIO to forgo an endorsement altogether, something that would serve as a blow to Hynes. The group has delayed its endorsement vote twice.

"It doesn't make sense for the AFL to choose either myself or Hynes when both of us clearly have significant labor support," Obama argued.

"Some folks out there want to downplay the amount of labor support we have," Mather said, "but the labor unions supporting Dan Hynes have been the ones hardest hit by the failed economic policies of the Bush administration. These people are hurting and they are upset, and their commitment to Dan is intense."

Copyright � 2003, Chicago Tribune

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