When Al Gore's campaign was floundering last fall, organized labor's early endorsement saved him in the key initial primary contests. Now, despite a strong economy and favorable popular sentiment on his campaign issues, the vice president is struggling in the polls, and the labor movement may once again come to the rescue. If union members turn out to vote as they have in recent elections, and vote for Gore by the same margins that they backed Clinton, they are likely to tip the balance in the key swing states, like Michigan and Ohio, and secure a Democratic victory in November. There are, however, a few bumps in this road. The threat is less from a groundswell of union member support for Bush (or even Pat Buchanan or Ralph Nader) than from a lack of enthusiasm for Gore. One union's internal polling, for example, showed that its members' dislike of Bush was much stronger than their liking for Gore. "The real challenge will be getting people to vote," one union staffer says, "convincing them that it's worth getting in the car and going to the polls."
Like other voters, union members typically rank Social Security or education as their main election year concerns. But labor strategists are convinced that Bush is acutely vulnerable with voters in union households on many gritty work issues, especially when he is linked to recent Republican anti-labor initiatives in Congress. A group of building trades workers ranged from strongly pro-Bush to weakly pro-Gore before one recent focus group started, but as the moderator contrasted Gore and Bush views on work-related issues - such as union rights or wage, safety and overtime standards - opinions in the focus group shifted; within just 20 minutes, the group was 9-to-1 in favor of Gore.
Even if Gore doesn't highlight these issues, unions will, and the contrast may swing many votes in union households. While labor also will play up broad populist themes, tagging Bush and Cheney as the Big Oil candidates who oppose a minimum-wage hike while proposing tax cuts for the rich, "our niche is to get information out on workplace issues," says AFL-CIO political director Steven Rosenthal.
But especially in the key Midwest industrial states, many union members feel betrayed by the Clinton-Gore administration's approach to trade and the global economy. Clinton's decision to pursue permanent normal trade relations with China over objections of unions stoked old fires of resentment for NAFTA, the World Trade Organization and other fights. "Between Bush and Gore there's no question whom it's going to be," says Steelworkers President George Becker. "The question is how to mobilize members after they feel they've been let down on the China deal by President Clinton. I think there's a way, but it's not good enough for Gore to tell me. He has to tell it to our members."
After the China vote, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney tried to help Gore by distancing him from Clinton's initiative, but many labor leaders got angry when Gore tapped former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, architect of the China vote campaign, to be his campaign chairman. "It was arrogant stupidity," one official says. "It was way disrespectful."
Although union leaders let Daley know they were still upset about trade when he attended their August AFL-CIO executive council meeting in Chicago, they were once again ready to work with him. "We'll see if he can run a campaign in support of workers as well as he can run a campaign against workers," Sweeney reportedly said.
Beyond the industrial unions, however, global economic policies are less salient to many union members than wages, Social Security, health care or education. Also, pragmatic union staff often sympathize with American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman's argument that "we have to put [China] behind us" since "there's no question who's head and shoulders above the other in regards to working families' issues."
The issue is not just one vote on China or even trade more broadly, argues the AFL-CIO's Stewart Acuff. It's the emergence for the first time in many decades of a strong popular movement with labor at its core that is critical of unrestrained corporate capital. As Rosenthal notes, "The real damage [from the China vote] is among activists who have to be energized in order to turn out voters. That's where things get set back."
This fall unions will place an even greater focus on turning on and turning out union household voters in large numbers. The expected continued decline in voter participation "increases the importance of base voters," such as union members, African-Americans and the growing ranks of Latinos, says AFSCME political director Larry Scanlon. Despite television's political dominance, labor is placing more of its chips on an old-fashioned tactic-union members leafleting and talking to fellow workers on the job. Unions have rediscovered this is their most powerful tool: Rosenthal says that 76 percent of members who received a flyer at work voted as their union suggested in the 1998 election. But only 11 percent got that personal message.
Starting last year the AFL-CIO and national unions began organizing committees of volunteer activists in 25 targeted states and 71 congressional districts - shifting away from earlier reliance on outside organizers who were sent to hot spots. These 500 trained political organizers - in addition to volunteers from individual unions like the Service Employees, who are putting 100 members to work in Pennsylvania alone - are expected to keep the political fires hot in key districts.
Another early foray in the campaign to get workers talking to other workers about the election is the "Texas Truth Squad," a team of union members traveling the country and talking about life for workers under Gov. Bush - low pay for public workers, a lack of collective bargaining rights, and cutbacks in workers compensation. They're persuasive partly because they seem honest and unscripted. Despite her criticisms of Bush and support for Gore, for example, corrections officer Sheri Cagle still admits, "I was disgruntled with the China thing. I felt sold out. I would have appreciated it if Gore had stood up and said, 'I disagreed.' "
The United Food and Commercial Workers are training workers how to talk more effectively with the press as well as with their fellow workers. They urge union members to avoid abstract policy statements and canned political lines and instead to speak just as they would in the break room at work. "It's not the soccer moms this year," says UFCW communications director Greg Denier, echoing an argument advanced in detail by Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers in their new book, America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters. "This is the election of the cashier moms, working-class women. We're making sure the cashier moms express their concerns."
While both Democrats and Republicans are promoting centrist, soft images at their conventions, labor strategists think working people will be drawn to Gore through sharp contrasts to the GOP. Bush's choice of vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney - who had a 6 percent lifetime labor voting record in Congress - was "terrific," Rosenthal says, backing up labor's portrait of Bush as a right-winger at heart. "We have an opportunity this year we've never had before," adds Communications Workers President Morton Bahr. "We can predict what legislation will be passed if Bush wins and Republicans keep Congress" just by looking at vetoed Republican legislation to undermine workplace safety, reduce overtime pay protection, or undermine union rights.
"The conventions may look the same," says Service Employees President Andrew Stern, "but the issues are not the same."
Such stark contrasts will be needed to generate the turnout Gore needs from labor. In 1992, 19 percent of voters came from union households; in 1996, it was 23 percent. Labor is aiming to turn out 25 percent of the vote this year. If unions can get rank-and-file households to back Gore as strongly as they voted for Clinton in 1996, then Gore is likely to win. For example, Rosenthal says, if union members in Michigan turn out in proportion to their registration (28 percent) and vote for Gore as polls now suggest, Bush is likely to win easily; but if union households match their 1996 share of the vote (40 percent) and support for Clinton, Gore would win narrowly.
But it is precisely in states like Michigan where Nader could throw a monkey wrench in such Gore plans, especially since the Teamsters and Auto Workers - who hadn't made an endorsement as of early August - are both big there. While Nader has little support from unions (only the independent California Nurses Association has endorsed him), many leaders respect him and agree with his message. Despite their leaders' pragmatic support for Gore, a slice of union members will vote for him (about 8 percent of Service Employee members, for instance, say they back Nader).
While many labor political strategists are not entirely happy with Gore's campaign message - or complain that there doesn't seem to be a clear message - they are determined to craft their own effort for Gore that has a stronger message. For that to succeed, Gore can't damage the credibility of unions with their own members - which the China vote threatened to do for many industrial unions. Unlike 1996, this year the labor movement did not cede the writing of the platform to the conservative Democratic Leadership Council. Instead, labor modified much of the language to make it more palatable - including advocacy of workers rights and environmental protection in trade agreements and replacing praise for "free trade" with more conditioned embrace of "open trade" that lifts standards everywhere rather than creating a race to the bottom.
Structurally, organized labor this year plays a role for the Democrats similar to that played by the Christian Coalition for the Republicans - generating grassroots enthusiasm over strongly drawn issues, while tolerating a moderate candidate who does not publicly promote its full agenda. But labor's agenda - especially if it is interpreted to include such ideas as universal health care and public education - is closer to the historic heart of the Democratic Party than the religious right's agenda is to the Republicans. It is also closer to a real majoritarian strategy that could appeal to even nonunion white workers who are swing voters, as Teixeira and Rogers argue.
If they can lift him to victory in November, unions will have a president who is clearly more sympathetic than George W. Bush would be, and even slightly more attuned to their cause than Bill Clinton has been. Yet despite their crucial role, because of the weight of business interests and corporate money in the Democratic Party, unions will still not be able to count on Gore as a consistent or visionary champion for labor's institutional interests or working family issues.
David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times.
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to Deal with Gore
Labor, Old Politics
Courts the Black Vote
Great Right Hope