Angry Teachers in Philly Could Damage Gore's Chances in Pennsylvania

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - Pennsylvania, one of the key battleground states in the presidential race, has flip-flopped recently in the polls, with Republican George W Bush ahead one week and Democrat Al Gore ahead the next. The Keystone State is crucial to both candidates but a new wildcard factor may hurt Gore in the homestretch of the campaign.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is threatening to strike if its contract demands are not met by the end of this week. Because many polling places are public schools, the strike could deter voters from crossing picket lines in a city where 80 percent of registered voters are Democrats.

A spokesman for the teachers union, which has endorsed Gore and other Democratic candidates, made it clear that the unresolved contract issues are the union's first priority, ahead of what happens on Election Day.

The Public Opinion Strategies poll gives Bush a slim lead, 45 to 43 percent, compared to a two point lead Gore held less than two weeks earlier. Both tallies were within the margin of error, meaning the race is too close to call.

Political analysts also project a close electoral vote battle between Gore and Bush, which makes Pennsylvania's 23 winner-take-all electoral votes a huge prize.

Gore might suffer, therefore, if the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers goes on a strike that extends through Election Day. The union has threatened to walk out if its contract demands are not met by the end of this week. Because many polling places are public schools, the strike could deter voters from crossing picket lines. Analysts say Gore needs heavy turnout in Philadelphia to win the state.

When asked about the impact the possible strike would have on voter turnout, Bob Bedard, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, responded, "Our first obligation is to our members. We're more interested in protecting the rights of 21,000 underpaid, hardworking members of the educational future of 215,000 kids."

The strike would affect about a quarter of Philadelphia's polling places located at public schools, according to Bedard. "If we are on strike," he continued, "we will be picketing public schools. We are prepared to have informational pickets in front of every work location controlled by the city of Philadelphia."

The union is demanding competitive salaries and benefits comparable to those in surrounding school districts.

Daryl Capwell, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party's Coordinating Campaign, said the strike won't affect the campaign's efforts to get voters to the polls. "We do not anticipate it to have a major effect on us. We cannot worry about things we can't control. Our job is very simple: we bring our voters to the polls," said Capwell.

Capwell would not speculate on whether voters would cross picket lines to vote.

However, Robert Brown, a spokesman for Philadelphia City Council member Darrell Clark, said a union strike could create problems. "It can't have a positive [effect]," he conceded.

"Everybody knows that in order to win Pennsylvania you have to win two places: Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. You can't do that if you have teachers picketing one-quarter of the polling places [in Philadelphia]," said Brown.

Brown believes, however, that the union will ultimately decide not to strike on Election Day.

"In terms of teachers picketing in front of the schools on Election Day, I tend to doubt that would happen," said Brown. "The teachers union is heavily Democratic, both in membership and getting out the vote campaigns, [and] they've made a pledge to help Gore and Lieberman take Pennsylvania. They can't do that unless they turn out the vote in Philadelphia," said Brown.

Just in case, according to Brown, voting machines are being delivered to the schools early so the union responsible for the machines won't have to decide whether to cross picket lines.