Decisions, Decisions

As labor ponders which Democrat to endorse, it also girds for battle against the GOP in ‘04

David Moberg

When union leaders think about strategy for next year’s elections, one goal overrides everything else. “People are ready to do almost anything in terms of getting George Bush out of the White House,” says Gerald McEntee, president of the public employees union AFSCME and chair of the AFL-CIO’s political committee. There are disagreements about the best candidate, tactics, organizational turf, and what issues are most important, but the passion to oust Bush is driving unions to work harder than ever before on politics and to smooth over conflicts.

“There is a real unity of purpose among affiliates that we haven’t ever seen,” says AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman. “Bush is making workers see we have to have an alternative.” It’s not just the loss of jobs—3.2 million from the private sector, the worst record at a comparable point in any administration since Herbert Hoover—but the attacks on workplace protections and on unions as institutions, and the unabashed catering to the rich and big corporations. Bush has been “an unmitigated disaster for working people,” says McEntee. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says, “No previous Republican administration has ever been this malicious on workers’ issues and more determined to seek advantage for corporate America.” And these are the polite comments.

Since 1995 the labor movement has made a dramatic political comeback—nearly doubling the union household share of the electorate and winning stronger support from union family voters for labor-backed candidates. Starting earlier than ever, the AFL-CIO in this election cycle will coordinate a $33 million effort to educate, register, and mobilize union voters in the commonly accepted “battleground states.” Focusing on economic issues, the campaign will appoint volunteer organizers in at least 5,000 local unions to make one-on-one contact with workers on the job, plus reach them repeatedly with mail and phone calls about critical issues, such as Bush undermining overtime pay.

But without more members, there are limits to how much even an intensified union effort can gain. So unions are starting new efforts to mobilize sympathetic non-union voters. They are also helping to create new progressive constituency groups that will play much of the role that the Democratic Party filled—at least in theory—before campaign finance reform cut off the flow of soft money to political parties. For example, the AFL-CIO executive council in August authorized creation of Working America, a neighborhood-based membership organization of working people who do not belong to a union but want to work on political and legislative issues.

On a larger scale, the federation and individual unions are putting millions into new organizations, regulated by Section 527 of the tax code. So-called 527 groups can accept soft money for voter registration and grassroots organizing. One of the first was Partnership for America’s Families, started by former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, which aims to register, educate, and mobilize sympathetic but non-union constituencies, including minorities and working women in targeted areas. McEntee quit the Partnership in May in a disagreement over how to proceed; he founded Voices for Working Families, a new 527 group with a similar mission. The AFL-CIO will support both, and the two groups have pledged to cooperate. Communications Workers President Morton Bahr also co-chairs a 527 group called Grassroots Democrats, dedicated to building state and local organization. Despite the potential for confusion, Rosenthal says: “There’s so much work to be done, we’re not the least bit concerned. The more organizations working, the better off we’ll be, assuming there’s coordination.”

Two new organizations may help provide that coordination. America Votes was founded in July as a coalition of labor (including the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and SEIU), environmentalist, civil rights, and community groups; it also includes new groups dedicated to voter education and mobilization, such as Partnership for America’s Families and MoveOn.org. Some of the groups in America Votes have in turn formed America Coming Together (ACT), a new political action committee that will develop statewide plans for 17 key states. ACT can raise both regulated hard money for candidate contributions and unregulated soft money, and it is expected to have a budget of $75 million. Already it has raised $30 million, including $10 million from financier-philanthropist George Soros and $8 million from labor unions.

Rosenthal, ACT’s chief executive, calls it “the largest field operation this country has ever seen.” Drawing on the lessons from labor’s political efforts, it aims in large part at expanding the likely base for progressive Democratic candidates. “This is in some ways what the party could have been doing and should have been doing,” Rosenthal said. “A lot of these voters feel the party and candidates haven’t been talking to them.”

This new organizational firepower will be available for whomever the Democrats nominate for president, as well as other candidates. For their part, Sweeney, McEntee, and other labor leaders have made it clear that any of the Democratic candidates would be preferable to Bush. “They’ve all passed the bar on how they address the issues,” McEntee said.

Still, many union leaders have clear sympathies and opinions about who can be elected. At the AFL-CIO candidate forum in Chicago in August, both Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Rev. Al Sharpton stirred the crowd of 2,500 with their strong pro-union oratory. Many labor leaders privately applaud Kucinich as, in the words of one, “a working class hero,” but neither he nor Sharpton is regarded as a viable candidate. Meanwhile, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who drew boos at the forum for advocating school vouchers and is widely distrusted by industrial unions on trade issues, is clearly seen by many union leaders as the least compatible candidate ideologically, even though they supported him on the Gore ticket.

Only Rep. Dick Gephardt seems to have any chance of winning an endorsement from the AFL-CIO in the primary. This would require two-thirds of affiliate votes at a federation General Board meeting. By mid-August Gephardt had won endorsements from 11 unions, including the Teamsters, Steelworkers, and Machinists. But his chances for a federation endorsement are iffy: The AFL-CIO has only endorsed two candidates in the primaries—Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000—and some leaders are skeptical about making an early endorsement. “In a perfect world, we’d endorse a candidate,” SEIU President Stern said, “but this isn’t a perfect world.”

Gephardt has a long history of friendly ties with organized labor, and for the industrial unions in particular, he has been one of their strongest advocates of fair trade. He also won plaudits for being first out of the gate with a comprehensive plan for health care, the leading issue for many unions. Although he supported authorization of the war in Iraq, contrary to labor’s stand, unions pay much more attention to economic issues. “He’s not just labor’s guy,” Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said while endorsing him in August. “He’s the heart and soul and conscience of working people.”

Gephardt’s support is not monolithic. In its survey of its base of political activists, the Steelworkers reported that Gephardt was the first choice in 70 percent of its locals, but he only squeaked ahead of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean by a few percentage points in the overall tally, and Dean reportedly made a strongly favorable impression when he spoke to the union’s executive board.

Time and again, union leaders explained their support for Gephardt in terms of loyalty to a familiar friend, an honorable if rare political value. “I’m a huge Dennis Kucinich fan,” Steelworkers district director Jim Robinson explained after the endorsement, “but Dennis is an issues candidate. For the endorsement, Gephardt was absolutely the right choice. He stands for our values and issues and has stood for a long time. With me, loyalty counts, and he’s been loyal to working people.”

But loyalty may not reveal which is the best candidate. In preparation for a September meeting to consider the candidates, SEIU commissioned young filmmakers to capture each candidate from their viewpoints. It also planned to have each candidate spend an hour with a group of 20 to 30 union members to see if they could pass what Stern calls “the hang test”—relating well personally to union members, not just with labor leaders. “It’s important that workers feel the candidate is someone they’d like to have dinner with or go bowling with,” Stern said. “Electability is important, but likeability helps with electability, whether a candidate can relate on an everyday level.”

Unions have devoted much effort to influencing the candidates’ positions and strategies, with some success. Dean, Kucinich, Gephardt, Sen. John Edwards, and Kerry have all explicitly supported keeping employers neutral and recognizing unions simply by checking cards. As a result of union influence, even the candidates who supported NAFTA, the WTO, and permanent normal trade relations with China—with the exception of Lieberman—now talk about including labor and environmental protection in future trade agreements. SEIU has ads in airports and on television in Iowa and New Hampshire urging candidates to propose universal health care plans. Nearly all the candidates have offered broad but differing plans for greater access to insurance.

It isn’t clear yet who has the best shot. At this point, Gephardt’s campaign has not caught fire, but supporters argue that he is best suited to defeat Bush in crucial Midwestern industrial states. So far there has also been limited popular enthusiasm for Kerry, even though he leads in fundraising. He seems to have more support from non-industrial union strategists who think he might be best suited to contest Bush on national security issues and are least troubled by his free trade voting record. Dean has clearly generated popular excitement, taking the lead recently among likely caucus-goers—including union members—in Iowa, Gephardt’s backyard. But despite being impressed with his message, some union leaders see him as an untested, unfamiliar candidate. With the field so fluid, union endorsements could make a difference, as they did in helping save Gore in 2000, but they also risk getting too far ahead of most union members and the dynamics of a still-young campaign, with union leaders backing a loser even among their own members.

In the end, unions don’t want anything to distract from their transcendent goal. “We’ve got to beat Bush,” Stern said. “That’s the only issue here.”

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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