In Ohio, the unions count

And rank-and-file are still deciding whom to vote for

Published: 3/1/2008 12:35 AM | Updated: 3/1/2008 8:18 AM

MAUMEE, Ohio -- With fat snowflakes pelting Joe Williams' black Teamsters jacket, the union steward methodically hands Barack Obama fliers to often-indifferent workers as they stream into this giant UPS facility outside Toledo.

"Someone has to care," he screams over the bustle of a nearby street. "We need more jobs -- bring our jobs back. I care. I ain't given up."

A few miles down the road, a few retirees painstakingly fill out dozens of postcards, pleading with fellow union members to support Hillary Clinton. The cards say Clinton will bring jobs back to this economically depressed region.

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"We are hurting," says Marilyn Allamong, a stack of unfilled postcards waiting on a worn folding table in front of her. "We really need someone to back us. Hillary is that person."

Inside AFSCME's one-story, bland office building and on the snow heaps at the edge of UPS' parking lot Friday -- this is where the decisive voters are in this historic Democratic primary.

In fact, the future of the Democratic Party is weighing heavily on the shoulders of blue-collar workers in rust-belt Ohio cities like Toledo, where voters are largely skeptical of free trade, longing for better health care and worried about their children's education and the Iraq war.

The burden is apparently being taken seriously by a voting bloc that has slowly become less and less influential over the decades.

Unions in Toledo -- one of the most unionized cities in America -- have staked out sides in this battle in almost equal balance, while the rank-and-file struggle to decide which candidate best speaks for them. Voters from union households in the state make up more than 40 percent of Democratic primary voters, one of the highest proportions in the nation.

"Basically, white union workers are probably going to decide this," says Benjamin Bates, an assistant professor specializing in campaign and policy communication at Ohio University in Athens.

Plus, as goes Ohio and Texas Tuesday, so goes the Democratic nomination, experts agree.

While Obama has won 11 straight primaries or caucuses since Feb. 5, losing Tuesday in such delegate-rich states would prove a real setback. Clinton's camp has conceded the New York senator needs to win both states to wrangle a clear shot at the nomination.

Clinton's best chance at a solid victory Tuesday, polls suggest, is in Ohio.

A few weeks ago Clinton was believed to have a lock on the critical union vote.

Yet, in Wisconsin's recent primary, a slight majority of union voters went for Illinois' junior senator. Several large unions backing Obama also have recently stepped up efforts to persuade members to follow suit.

In an apparent move to shore up support in the state, Clinton has plans to return to the Buckeye State for the two days before voters hit the polls, leaving behind Texas and its higher delegate tally.

A shaky base

Union endorsements or vote tallies in other states can hardly paint an accurate picture of which way similar voters are leaning in Ohio.

By far, good-paying work is the top issue for these voters.

Ohio has lost a third of its manufacturing jobs, nearly a quarter-million, since 2000 and workers seem to blame free-trade deals like the one Bill Clinton pushed in the 1990s with Mexico and Canada, called NAFTA. Obama has tried to tie the former first lady to that deal.

But other dividing issues -- race, gender or the Iraq war -- could make the difference for some.

Moreover, endorsements by a union's top brass do not guarantee the workers will follow suit in the voting booth.

Take 21-year-old Ashley Postma, a Teamster sorter at the UPS facility, the third largest in the nation. Postma cares about jobs and NAFTA, but all that is background noise as she frets that her husband might get shipped off to Iraq soon. He just finished basic training.

"I'm just not sure yet between the two," she says.

The Teamsters are officially backing Obama.

Hillary Clinton supporter Barb Leidel also is at odds with her union. The 71-year-old retiree works part-time at Meijer and is a longtime member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

That union officially backed Obama, so she gave up her free time Friday to fill out postcards at the AFSCME headquarters with friends.

"I'm going to give them a piece of my mind," she barks, referring to her union's leadership.

Getting out the vote

For union officials, getting the rank-and-file votes to back up their celebrated endorsements is key as the clock tickets toward Election Day. Like other unions, the Teamsters have brought in volunteers from other areas to bolster the volunteering ranks and sell Obama at Ohio factories and truck stops.

Travis Mumm, a 23-year-old Teamsters intern from Gurnee, will spend at least a week in Toledo doing just that.

"We have been at this since Tuesday," he says energetically after a UPS security officer asks the small group to move away from the slushy street to prevent car accidents.

While many voters, union or not, are still undecided in this close election, Toledo residents certainly are aware their ballots -- and maybe their concerns -- are weighing heavy on the minds of Obama and Clinton.

Political ads blanket the TV and radio here. Phone calls from campaign workers interrupt dinner time. And the candidates or their surrogates are making repeated trips throughout the region, shaking hands and holding rallies in Republican hamlets, affluent suburbs and depressed cities alike as they search out every possible supporter.

"At this point -- yeah, it feels like it may matter a little bit," Postma says, her eyes searching the UPS parking lot filled with scores of cars.