On Labor Day, unions make traditional political push

The Baltimore Sun

George West found something beyond the thrill rides, snowball stands and livestock yesterday at the Maryland State Fair.

At a booth manned by volunteers from local labor unions, West, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, also got some suggestions on whom to vote for in this fall's elections.

He said many union members follow the union's advice come election season and often vote for Democrats. "Those who support you, you support," the Baltimore County man said.

In election years, Labor Day is when unions typically ramp up their efforts to influence voters. Yesterday, union volunteers handed out fliers, bumper stickers and yard signs from a booth at the fair .

That effort was mirrored statewide yesterday, with union members going door-to-door, encouraging voters to register and handing out county-specific lists of endorsements.

"We are supporting candidates who understand the needs and concerns of working people," said Ernie Grecco, the president of the Baltimore AFL-CIO, the organization that serves as the collective voice for 22 city labor unions.

The organization's endorsements include Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley for governor and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin for U.S. Senate.

Grecco, who helped with the booth yesterday, said the unions are looking for candidates who support programs that protect workers with unemployment insurance and workers' compensation.

"By far our most important issue is health insurance," he said. "Whenever we are going to a negotiation, health care is our biggest concern."

But some at the fair weren't buying organized labor's message.

"I think unions have outlived their usefulness," said Cary Tamres, a mortgage banker from Pikesville.

Last week, Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, also expressed skepticism. "Their influence on elections has been overstated," she said.

In addition to losing membership, the AFL-CIO suffered a schism last year when seven member unions broke away to form a new group, Change to Win.

They included two of the nation's largest unions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, which complained that the AFL-CIO spent too much money on political candidates and not enough on building membership.

Despite the setback and concerns it would further weaken labor's political power, the AFL-CIO has continued to try to exert influence this election year.

The presence at the state fair was part of a larger political campaign nationwide. The AFL-CIO plans to spend $40 million, more money than ever, to influence voter turnout in the fall elections.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, has referred to the country's current political atmosphere as the "perfect storm" for ending Republican control of Congress.

Terry Leirman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said the unions still play an important part in elections.

"They have members in the mega-thousands and people who are willing to go out and knock on doors," he said.

Philomena Cirillo, a Denton resident who is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, was one of the volunteers handing out stickers and pamphlets yesterday at the fair.

She said her first encounter with unions was when she attended the large Labor Day parades in Baltimore as a child. The parades packed the streets and made an impression on Cirillo.

"They were incredible, things fell out of the sky," she said, comparing it to the Macy's Thanksgiving parade in New York.

Gary T. Knudsen, an electrician from Essex, stopped by the booth and talked with Cirillo. Knudsen does not belong to a union, but he said he tends to vote for the same Democratic candidates the union endorses.

West, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers member who visited the booth, said he and other union members ultimately vote for whoever protects their wages and health care.

"It comes down to who protects your bread and butter," he said. "To who is not hacking away at things you had for years."


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