Unions in upstate N.Y. like Mondale - and they deliver the vote
''Good afternoon,'' Dorothy Sittnick says into the telephone. ''We are asking all union members to help in electing our candidate, Walter F. Mondale.'' Mrs. Sittnick, a retiree, is working on the AFL-CIO phone bank here in recession-weary Erie County. She pauses as the person on the other end responds.
''Then we can have your support,'' she says cheerfully. ''Thank you.''
The phone lines will be busy all day as volunteers try to bring out the vote for Mr. Mondale in today's New York primary. And if its past record is any indication, organized labor should be able to deliver here. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan took New York State, Erie County chose the Carter-Mondale ticket by a larger margin than anywhere else in the state.
The nation is watching the elections here as an indicator of where the race for the Democratic nomination is heading. Buffalo, a symbol of the declining smokestack industries, has the highest unemployment in the state. Its residents are predominantly blue-collar, traditional, family oriented, and somewhat older than areas downstate. There are tight ethnic enclaves, including black, Hispanic , Italian, Polish, Irish, and German.
''This area is tailor-made for Mondale,'' says Gerald M. Goldhaber of Goldhaber Research Associates and a professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo.
But there is also enthusiasm for the Rev. Jesse Jackson here. Mr. Jackson has more delegates running in this district than any of the other candidates.
''Buffalo will give Jackson a lot of support,'' says Lynn Canty, a student at SUNY Buffalo. She was waiting in the student center for the arrival of former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who endorsed Jackson here last Friday. And she recalls there was a big turnout at Jackson's rally in Buffalo a few days earlier.
A majority of Democratic voters live in New York City, but some observers suggest the upstate vote could swing the election, particularly if there is a split vote downstate.
Mondale may lose votes to Jesse Jackson, especially among young blacks. Thus, what might have been a landslide victory for the former vice-president will be a close race.
The recent debates in New York State may help Jackson today. Some residents have been dismayed at the ''sniping'' of Gary Hart and Mondale. One New Yorker says several of his friends will vote for Jackson because of his ''sensible'' comments in the debates.
''Negative campaigning will boomerang,'' agrees Dr. Goldhaber, who has studied charisma as a factor in elections. ''The arguments brought up now will be used by President Reagan later.''
Upstate, Mr. Hart is expected to do best in towns like Rochester, which has a larger population of ''yuppies'' (young, upwardly mobile, urban professionals).
But the unions here are expected to bring a bonanza to Walter Mondale. George L. Wessel, president of the AFL-CIO council in Buffalo, says his phone banks will have reached about 50,000 potential voters since it began several weeks ago.
He has watched union locals here shrink as the area's job base has contracted. ''The welfare rolls have gone up tremendously in this area,'' he says.
Mr. Wessel also sees the problem of unemployment in the soup kitchen where he occasionally volunteers. The last time he served, there were 350 recipients, both minorities and whites, and including families.
''All my life this has been a pretty solid city with enough work for people, '' Wessel says. ''I don't know how that guy feels who gets laid off with 12 more years of work left. And the jobs aren't there.''
Wessel reports that 70 to 80 percent of the union members reached by the telephone banks say they plan to vote for Mondale.
''We've been hounding and hounding and hounding and hounding members to get out and vote (today),'' Wessel says. He shrugs off the charge that Mondale caters to special-interest groups in his embrace of the labor unions.
''They either say we're a special interest or we're a paper tiger,'' Wessel says. ''Big deal. If we are a special interest, so are working people.''
One Republican here understands the desire of the unions to deliver the vote to the candidate they like best.
''Legislation means quite a bit to the unions,'' he says.
Buffalo is not an easy area to define politically. Though registration is predominantly Democratic (Carter won big here in 1980), it is also the same area that elected conservative Republican Congressman Jack F. Kemp.
The area is also undergoing a change from heavy industry to more white-collar , communications, and service-sector jobs. But the transition takes time, and ''there is very little space on a silicon chip'' for the many out-of-work, blue-collar workers, Goldhaber says.