MADISON, Wis. – Some of the largest unions in Wisconsin are sitting out the state's Democratic primary Tuesday, holding back money and muscle for the fall effort to defeat President Bush.
In their place, smaller unions have been busy making phone calls, knocking on doors and being a visible presence at events for the major candidates — John Kerry (search), John Edwards (search) and Howard Dean (search). An endorsement by any union may mean less to the rivals without the intensity that usually goes with it.
"If you don't have the rank-and-file union members with fire in the belly or passion for the candidate, it's not going to go anywhere," said the Rev. Timothy O'Brien, director of Marquette University's Les Aspin Center for Government in Washington.
Nearly 16 percent of Wisconsin workers belong to a labor union, just above the national average of 12.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Three unions — the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the United Auto Workers, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — aren't working for any of the Democrats in the race for the party's nomination. The national chapter of the AFSCME pulled support from Howard Dean last week.
The WEAC, with 96,000 members, is on the sidelines at the direction of its parent group, the National Education Association. "All of these Democrats are good on education," spokesman Dustin Beilke said.
The UAW, meanwhile, has lost resources with a downturn in membership. "So we've got to spend our money a little more wisely," said Red Platz, coordinator of UAW's political arm in Wisconsin.
The Teamsters, who were working for Dick Gephardt until he dropped out, will simply endorse Kerry.
"There won't be a lot of get-out-the-vote effort just because we're changing horses late in the primary," Teamsters spokesman Kevin Shibilski said. "It's not a question of saving our ammunition."
Smaller unions are sending out videotapes, fliers and their members to build support for the candidate they think would be best for labor.
Wisconsin's International Association of Firefighters has distributed videotapes describing Kerry and his record to each of its 3,000 state members.
"We're doing everything and anything the Kerry campaign asks us to do," state president Rick Gale said.
Members of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees are going to every work site where it has a presence to organize volunteers for Edwards, said Chris Chaffe, the union's national political director. Fliers in support of Edwards are being e-mailed and distributed to its 2,700 members.
Chaffe said with the larger unions taking a pass on endorsing any candidate, Edwards has the chance to "utilize the momentum he carries and the message he carries to jump-start a voting base that hasn't been told what to do."
The 2,500-member International Union of Painters and Allied Trades in Milwaukee is one of two unions still supporting Dean even though his campaign has faltered.
"When we give our word to somebody, we're going to stay behind it," said Steve Schreiner, president of IUPAT Local 781 in Milwaukee.
In spite of the union's pledge, Schreiner said, he and the majority of the members of his local are backing Kerry.