Labor Celebrates Primary Wins, Looks Ahead to Hard—and Expensive—Political Year

David Moberg

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), before the polls closed on Tuesday. Specter lost a close primary campaign against Rep. Joe Sestak.

We’re in it to win it,’ says AFL-CIO political director

Tuesday’s primary votes were a real victory for working people,” says Karen Ackerman, AFL-CIO political director, despite Pennsylvania Democratic voters’ rejection of former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, running with the endorsement of top Democrats, from Obama to Gov. Ed Rendell, and most of organized labor.

Labor – and the Democrats – scored their clearest victory in the southwest Pennsylvania district of deceased Democratic Rep. John Murtha, a de-industrialized slice of the state that voted for Kerry but then went for McCain over Obama. Democratic candidate Mark Critz, a former aide to Murtha who ran as a social conservative, won in the type of district Republicans thought they would sweep this year. But even if the vote preserves Democrats’ control of the House, it’s a stretch to call it a major victory for working people or progressive politics.

In labor’s most controversial move for yesterday’s primaries, Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter forced incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a run-off, and now Ackerman says, We’re in it to win it.”

Just for the first round, not counting the final few days, the AFL-CIO reports making 60,000 phone calls, handing out more than 200,000 leaflets at more than 75 worksites, and mailing three pieces to more than 60,000 households and another 20,000-piece mailing from Alliance fo Retired Americans. 

The AFL-CIO’s community arm, Working America, also knocked on 82,000 doors, made over 200,000 calls, and sent 1.75 million mailers. Various unions, including the Service Employees, made independent expenditures on advertising, for a total union expenditure, Ackerman says, of several million dollars.”

The support from unions, MoveOn and other progressive groups for Halter prompted Lincoln to call on primary election night for outside” groups to get out of the state. There’s nothing outside’ about people who have members of unions in Arkansas,” Ackerman said in a teleconference. This [campaign for Halter against Lincoln] was initiated by union activists in Arkansas for Arkansas.”

For many years unions have had a difficult relationship” with Lincoln, Ackerman says, especially over her opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, her wavering on health reform and opposition to the public option, and finally her joining with Republicans to vote against Obama’s appointment of Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. As a result, she says, there was incredible enthusiasm of unionists in Arkansas who ran an extremely aggressive worker to worker program.”

In Pennsylvania, former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter had co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act when there was no chance it would become law, then switched to oppose it when his vote could have been critical to pass it, maintaining that position even when he switched to the Democrats because he thought he would lose the Republican primary. 

Despite that treachery on one of labor’s top priorities as well as his continued unreliable and unprincipled behavior, most unions – including the state and national AFL-CIO — stuck with him as many had when he was a Republican out of gratitude for past small favors and occasional good votes (such as for Obama’s stimulus package). It was a matter of hairsplitting to make Specter a workers’ hero and Lincoln a tool of the bosses, and in the end it didn’t work.

Surging from way behind in the polls at the end with ads that questioned Specter’s Democratic identity and motives for switching parties, centrist Rep. Joe Sestak defeated Specter, and should have no trouble winning labor’s endorsement. His prospects for beating right-wing Republican nominee Pat Toomey increased with Critz’s victory.

Despite the conventional wisdom that voters are simply opposed to incumbents (partly true, but as much within parties as generally), Ackerman insists the election still has to do with jobs and the economy. Working people, middle-class people are scared about what the future holds. They want politicians who will fight for jobs.”

It may be difficult in many instances to make that argument or any other winning case on behalf of Democrats, although even where the right-wing Tea Party made the news – with Rand Paul’s upset in the Kentucky Republican senatorial primary, the slightly more progressive of the Democratic candidates, Jack Conway, polled more votes in his victory than Paul did.

With several caveats, it was nearly as good a night for labor in these primaries as could be expected, but there’s a long, difficult half-year ahead.

The field is expansive and this is a very hard election, maybe the hardest yet,” Ackerman says. The AFL-CIO is planning campaigns for the Senate, governor or both in about 18 states and about 60 to 70 House races. And, she adds, We’re determined to spend what it takes.”

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue