[Documents menu] Documents menu

Labor holds key to future for Gore, his party in Nov.

By David Goldstein, The Enquirer,
Monday 4 September 2000

WASHINGTON - Like clockwork, labor leaders tell their rank and file every two years that the campaign before them represents "the most important election in their lifetime." This year, they say, they mean it.

"You hate to keep using the same cliche over and over, but it is very, very critical," said Joseph Rauscher, president of the Central Labor Council of Philadelphia, an umbrella organization for 250 unions. "It's not only the presidency. We've got a very, very good shot this time around to regain the House."

The "we," of course, means the Democratic Party. Organized labor has been a cornerstone of the Democratic base since the New Deal days of the 1930s. And these days, when union members vote, Democrats win.

In 1994, union voters were only 13 percent of the turnout, and the Democrats lost 52 seats in the House of Representatives and control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. In 1998, the labor turnout rose sharply to 23 percent, and, combined with strong support from African Americans and women, the party came within five seats of retaking the House.

This year, with Vice President Gore in a tight presidential race against Republican George W. Bush and with control of Congress hanging in the balance, labor is a crucial force for the Democrats.

In a stretch of five states from Pennsylvania to Illinois viewed as key to the election, union households made up nearly 30 percent or more of the voter turnout in 1996. In Michigan, it was 40 percent.

Gore "won't get elected without labor, I tell you that right now," said Charles Porter, an official with the Sheet Metal Workers Union in Kansas City.

Eager to court that important bloc, Gore will spend much of the fall in heavily unionized swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

Yesterday he rallied in Philadelphia with construction workers at a Center City work site. Then he and his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, traveled to Flint, Mich., to visit a medical center during the late-night shift change.

From there they planned to go to Tampa, Fla., to campaign at a bakery and an all-night diner, then have breakfast with firefighters. Gore was then to fly to Pittsburgh today for a labor rally and wind up the day in Louisville, Ky.

Organized labor's role in this year's campaign comes with a heavy dose of irony. Up against a Democratic administration that has endorsed the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, the nation's unions have been unable to accomplish one of their most important goals - restraining the administration's push to expand free trade.

Although the unions are concerned that Gore's trade policy would cost jobs in America, union leaders say the vice president's camp has assured them their views will be taken into account in any discussions of future trade agreements under a Gore administration.

What's more, they say, the continuation of Republican control in Congress combined with a victory by Bush in the presidential race would threaten their push for better health and safety regulations, worker protections and wage increases.

"We're not going to throw the baby out with the bath water," Rauscher said. "We're not a one-issue movement."

Apart from the Teamsters- courted by the Republicans but so far not committed to any candidate - most major unions have lined up behind Gore and support his programs on health care, education and Social Security reforms.

"This is a watershed year," said Bill Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO.

For unions, Labor Day marks the beginning of the final stage of a grassroots political organizing effort that began 18 months ago and is the envy of the opposition.

"I don't think we have anything comparable," said David Israelite, political director of the Republican National Committee.

Labor will position activists in important states, register new voters, distribute leaflets at plant gates, promote candidates and issues such as health care and education in local union newsletters, establish phone banks, hold voter education meetings, and operate a get-out-the-vote campaign.

That signifies a return to the basics after the 1994 rout, when labor tried - unsuccessfully - to compete financially in the political arena with big business.

"Frankly, we weren't as organized as we needed to be," said Steve Rosenthal, political director for the AFL-CIO. "We had gotten somewhat rusty. There used to be neighbors and [Democratic] party committee people who would knock on doors and talk to voters about issues. That doesn't exist anymore. What the union is doing is filling that void."

While a majority of union members vote Democratic - President Clinton won 59 percent of the union vote in 1996 - Republicans have been able to attract rank-and-file workers, particularly white ethnic voters in big unionized states. The best known are the Reagan Democrats, who were drawn to Ronald Reagan's patriotic message and socially conservative values. Many of those voters are now Republican, but others are now ambivalent independents and it is those workers whom the unions want to mobilize.

Labor officials will not say how much they are spending on the presidential campaign, but the AFL-CIO has budgeted $40 million for the 1999-2000 political and legislative season. That includes money spent on such things as fighting trade bills, as well as on ballot initiatives and state legislative races.

The effort has not gone unnoticed. The Republican National Committee will spend $100 million on a get-out-the-vote drive this fall, which Israelite said was a record amount for that effort by the Grand Old Party.

The business community, meanwhile, is taking a long, hard look at labor's success.

"It's basic politics 101," said Gregory Casey, president and chief executive officer of the Business Industry Political Action Committee, which represents about 400 companies. "Find and motivate voters who should be inclined to support your message and get them to the polls. In 1998 they were successful. We have reason to believe they plan to do that and more in 2000."

David Goldstein's e-mail address is dgoldstein@krwashington.com

[World History Archives]    [Gateway to World History]    [Images from World History]    [Hartford Web Publishing]