Democrats rely on Bill Clinton to woo union voters who may be considering a Donald Trump vote

Posted at 5:00 AM, Sep 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-05 19:10:33-04

It isn’t a coincidence that former president Bill Clinton spoke at the AFL-CIO picnic at Coney Island on Monday, which prides itself as the largest Labor Day picnic in the country.

A battle for the union vote in Ohio is breaking out as Republicans are appealing to traditional blue collar Democrats with growing success.

“Republicans are making appeals to white working class voters that are sticking,” said University of Dayton political science professor Dan Birdsong. “Democrats, and (Hillary) Clinton specifically, have to be concerned in the shift of the union vote if they want to continue to keep that base of support.”

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has shown wide national appeal with working class male voters who are upset about jobs being shipped overseas, unfair trade deals and stagnant wages.

Union leaders have overwhelmingly endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. But some rank-and-file members, especially in traditional manufacturing unions, seem to be undecided and considering Trump.

Last week several big union leaders in Ohio held press conferences in six cities, including Cincinnati, to announce their endorsement of Clinton in an effort to rally their membership behind her.


Tim Burga, president of Ohio AFL-CIO, and other state union leaders announce their support for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at United Automobile Workers union hall in Evendale on Aug. 30, 2016.

“When push comes to shove I think we will definitely be unified,” said Tim Meadors, president of the Cincinnati chapter of United Automobile Workers, at the Aug. 30 event in Evendale.

But Meadors admitted there is quiet rumbling from some members who don’t like Clinton.

“Right now there is obviously some disgruntledness … but its not people saying, ‘I’m going to vote for Donald Trump,' its people saying that 'I won’t vote for Hillary, but I’m not going to vote for Donald Trump either,'” he said.

However, Trump isn’t the only Republican who is making inroads with union voters in Ohio.

Republican Sen. Rob Portman has garnered the support of three union groups: the Ohio Conference of Teamsters, the Ohio Fraternal Order and the United Mine Workers of America that had backed his Democratic opponent, former governor Ted Strickland in the past.

Strickland has gathered the bulk of the union endorsements in Ohio. But recent polls show Portman has a wide lead over him in his bid for re-election.

“I think that in Ohio, in particular, the Democrats should be concerned with the union vote,” said Joe Valenzano, chairman of the communications department at the University of Dayton and an expert in campaign rhetoric.

“Portman has managed to gain the support of several union groups that typically lean Democrat, and that may help Trump a bit at the top of the ticket,” Valenzano said. “There is also the chance it will create split ballots, too, but with Trump's better than average appeal to working class Americans, and Clinton's weakness with that group, the down ticket effect might really serve to help Trump in some places.”

Labor Day picnic

The podium at the AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic has always attracted big-name speakers.

In 2009, President Barack Obama spoke, and in past years Vice President Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Tom Perez have also been guests.


Union suppporters gather at the AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic at Coney Island on Sept. 7, 2015.

But this year the fact that Bill Clinton -- as opposed to Hillary Clinton -- spoke at the picnic shows the political strategy at play.

“Even with NAFTA on his lapel, so to speak, (Bill Clinton) is a big name,” Birdsong said.

Picnic-goers feed off “barn-burner” type speeches that Biden and Obama are so good at, Birdsong said, and Hillary Clinton is not.

“Hillary Clinton is not that kind of speaker. She’s much better one-on-one in an interview than with a crowd of people,” Birdsong said. “She can’t engage the crowd the way those other speakers can.”

But unions in Ohio aren’t just relying on big-name speakers to sway their members to Hillary Clinton; they have also launched massive voter education drives.


Tim Burga, president of Ohio AFL-CIO, and other big state labor leaders, announce their support for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at a press conference at the United Automobile Workers union hall in Evendale on Aug. 30, 2016.

“We are talking to our members at the workplace, on the front porch, through the phones and local union mail about the issues that we think really matter most to creating jobs and raising wages and where the candidates stand,” said Tim Burga, president the Ohio AFL-CIO.

When asked if Trump had appeal to his union members, Ken Lortz, president of the United Automobile Workers union in Ohio and Indiana, responded, “probably.”

“But that’s the purpose here: We want to inform our members," Lortz said. "Because I am confident that informed members that see through the smokescreen that Donald Trump puts out there will clearly come to the right decision and vote for Hillary Clinton.” 

Dave McCall, director of United Steelworkers in Ohio, even brought a Trump brand shirt and tie to the press conference and held them up to the roughly 50 union members in attendance.

“He says he wants to bring jobs and work back to the United States, but he doesn’t do what he says he’s going to do,” McCall said. “Here’s a Trump shirt made in Bangladesh. It could be made here in the United States. Here’s a Trump tie made in China; it could be made here in the United States.”