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Revived Unions Flex Their Muscles in L.A.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 August 2000 1:39 PM EST

LOS ANGELES _ Mercedes-Benzes are conspicuously missing from the Daimler-Chrysler corporate receptions at the Democratic National Convention.

y Pennsylvania Auditor General Bob Casey Jr. has refused to stay at the Omni Hotel, where the state's delegates were lodged for convention week.

What does one fact have to do with the other? Everything.

Both involve the power that labor unions are exerting in the 2000 campaign season, and the deference being paid here to union members _ who make up roughly 30 percent of the elected delegates _ and to union money, which accounts for some of the largest contributions to the Democrats' coffers.

Mercedeses were displayed prominently at Daimler-Chrysler events during the Republican Convention in Philadelphia. But in Los Angeles, the company is sharing host duties with the United Auto Workers; hence no Mercedeses, since the Alabama plant that produces them is non-union. Also non-union are the employees of the Omni Hotel, which is why Casey chose to find another place to stay.

Union leaders are all over the convention schedule this week, with three _ AFSCME president Gerald McEntee Tuesday night, and National Education Association president Bob Chase and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney Wednesday night _ granted plum primetime slots. The U.S. labor movement has revived in recent years, and its membership _ and clout _ are on the rise. Democrats know their success at the polls depends in large part on labor votes, organization and money. Put simply: With the unions solidly behind him, Gore has a chance; without them, he's toast.

So far, the major organizations _ with the exception of James Hoffa's Teamsters _ are strong for Gore. Thousands of union members gathered Sunday for a Sweeney-led rally here, cheering wildly and giving the vice president a standing ovation _ and Gore wasn't even present, just piped in via satellite TV from the Midwest.

"I am running for president to fight for you," he said, " and I know in my heart _ and with you standing with me _ there is no force that can beat us."

Others showed up in person to pay homage, including House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who told the crowd, "Many of us wouldn't be here without you."

Sweeney urged union delegates to make this a "historic week," saying, "We must dominate this convention _ with our spirit, with our signs, with our presence and participation in the convention hall.

"You, my brothers and sisters," he said, "are the largest delegation of down-home, uptown, grassroots, kick-a_ union leaders in the history of the Democratic National Convention."

It wasn't always this way. Through the `90s, as membership declined and the Clinton-Gore administration pushed through NAFTA and relaxed trade restrictions on China, labor and the Democrats drifted apart. Union leaders were not pleased in June when Gore named Commerce Secretary Bill Daley to head his campaign.

But the broken bonds are knitting. The United Auto Workers, which had held off on an endorsement, last week finally announced its support for Gore; now only the Teamsters are holding out.

"I think some people are concerned (about the Clinton-Gore record), and rightfully so. But people are coming around," said Bill George, head of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

"We had a couple of differences (with Gore). We settled them," said Nate Gooden, UAW vice president, adding, "We love him. He's great. He's our candidate."

Unions are better mobilized for campaign battle than they've been in years. The AFL-CIO's Project 2000 will concentrate on a "worker-to-worker" effort, distributing pamphlets to one in five members _ double the 1998 number _ for use in persuading their peers to pull the Democratic lever. The Internet and e-mail will enhance their efforts.

"I shudder to think about what our party would be nationally and in Pennsylvania without organized labor," Casey said. "If labor isn't on the ground, just in terms of workers and get-out-the-vote, in some voting precincts it would be a ghost town. We're in big trouble if we don't have the unions."

According to nationwide exit polls from the 1998 elections, labor accounted for twice as many voters as it had in 1994. Unions voters are a particularly powerful force in such critical states as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan.

They also flex a mighty collective financial muscle. Through June 30, for example, five of the Democratic Party's 12 largest donors of "soft money" _ used for "party building," issue ads and get-out-the-vote efforts _ were unions.

The Democrats know this.

It explains why Casey _ who always checks the union status of stops on his itinerary _ decided not to stay at the Omni, and why some two dozen other Pennsylvania elected officials subsequently made other arrangements, too.

It explains why there were no Mercedes-Benzes on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum, where UAW-Daimler-Chrysler (note the billing) has held a string of lavish parties for politicians this week, including a bash for White House staff and President Clinton following his speech Monday night.

Before the party, Gooden strolled among the Jeep Wranglers and Dodge Ram trucks, radiating confidence. Cigar in mouth, handing out bottles labeled "Nate Gooden Woodbridge Merlot," he predicted that even U.S. Mercedes workers soon would fall in line.

"They're not union now, but they'll be organized in a year and a half," he said.

"You think so?" he was asked. "I know so," he said.

Then he sped off in a Chrysler Voyager.

(c) 2000, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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