But does it matter?

Al Gore gets the nod from the AFL-CIO. But will it translate into strong support from the union rank and file?


David Moberg
October 14, 1999 9:10PM (UTC)

When Steelworkers President George Becker arrived here for the biennial convention of the AFL-CIO, he remained
undecided about whether to join a growing number of fellow labor leaders
in endorsing Al Gore for president.

"Nobody has had more problems with trade than the Steelworkers union,"
lamented Becker, a tenacious and intense crusader on behalf of industrial
workers. Becker had been deeply disappointed with the Clinton
administration's policies on trade. He would have been a strong supporter of
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt if he had decided to run, but despite a
half-dozen meetings with the vice president in recent months, Becker had
not been persuaded by Gore's labor pitch. "We were prepared to sit this one
out," Becker said. "That's not my nature or the Steelworkers' nature."

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But on Tuesday afternoon, on the eve of the endorsement vote by the labor
federation's 51-member executive council, Becker and a few of his union's
vice presidents sat down with Gore one more time. After nearly an hour,
Becker was willing to take a chance with a candidate who had infuriated
union members across the country with his impassioned advocacy of the
North American Free Trade Agreement in a TV debate with Ross Perot. "I got
definite signals from him that he believes these trade laws represent
corporate and financial interests, and they should represent people,"
Becker said. Gore later told AFL-CIO delegates that he would "insist on and
use the authority to enforce worker rights, human rights and environmental
protections" in future trade deals, a bare minimum requirement in Becker's
eyes.

Though the AFL-CIO endorsement gave a small boost to the flagging Gore
campaign, it is still unclear just what the endorsement will mean. Polls of
union members, which unions did not release, apparently show a less than
overwhelming margin of support for Gore. Many union leaders -- even in the
unions that supported an AFL-CIO endorsement -- are more interested in
local or congressional races or in their organizing work than in a
presidential primary.

The endorsement of Gore did not come without strong objections. In the
executive council meeting just before the convention vote, two unions -- the
United Auto Workers and the Teamsters -- voted against endorsement, and eight others
abstained, including the Machinists, Government Employees, Paper
and Chemical Workers and the Electrical Workers. Several
other unions, including the big Service Employees and Food and Commercial
Workers, only decided to back Gore at the last minute as well.

Teamsters President Jim Hoffa has flirted with Bill Bradley and any
Republican who will meet with him (even Orrin Hatch, at one point), and while he
was in Los Angeles for the convention, Hoffa talked trade over dinner with
potential candidate Warren Beatty. It's an opportunity for Hoffa to get
publicity and make the Teamsters appear to be a powerful player. There's a
history to the maverick behavior. After all, until Ron Carey was elected
president of the union in 1991, Teamsters had for many years backed Republican
presidential candidates, even after they were readmitted to the AFL-CIO under
Jackie Presser's reign. Hoffa also wants some specific concessions, especially
agreement from the White House and any endorsed candidate to stop free entry of
Mexican trucks to U.S. highways, as NAFTA originally provided.

Internal Teamster politics play a role as well in Hoffa's calculations, according to aides. He has
to run again in two years, and his reformer opponents could criticize him for
high-handedness if he pushed an endorsement that members weren't involved in
deciding. On the other hand, the strong Republican contingent in Hoffa's camp
within the Teamsters is not likely to be happy jumping quickly for Gore. Despite
that Republican faction and sympathy among Teamsters for the trade views of
potential Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, Teamster Vice President Chuck Mack
said that he was confident that the Teamsters ultimately will be in the
Democratic camp.

While few unions had such specific quid-pro-quo goals as the
Teamster ambition to block Mexican trucks, the debate over endorsement did center
around the issue of how much power labor would have. If Gore and Bradley had to
fight it out for union member votes, their campaigns might take on a more
economic populist tone. But Stewart Acuff, the savvy head of the Atlanta Central
Labor Council, argued that delay might give more leverage over the candidate and
the campaign, but early endorsement would give more influence over the eventual
officeholder, who would remember that help. In truth, unions are likely to have
to fight for influence no matter when they endorse, and they can only win that
fight if they have their members with them.

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Ultimately, union leaders may be able to persuade large majorities
of their members to support Gore and go to the polls. Labor unions have
become much more effective in recent years, pulling out victories in difficult
situations by registering more union members, getting them to the polls
disproportionately and boosting the percentage of union voters who
support their leaders' positions. But that is hardest to do in presidential
races, where people are more inclined to make personal decisions.

Both Gore and Bradley had good labor records in Congress
(though both supported NAFTA), but in recent years Gore has traipsed to
"more union meetings than anyone except John Sweeney," AFSCME (public
workers) President Gerald McEntee said. He has cultivated the kind of
personal relationships that labor leaders prize more than ideological
reliability. But he has also become an advocate of stronger protections for
workers' right to organize unions, a key issue for unions that have made a
top priority of expanding their numbers. In his appearance before the
convention, Gore brought out several workers he had just met and shared
with labor leaders their tales of harassment and dismissal as they tried to
form unions. "I believe that the right to organize is a basic American right
that should never be stopped, never be blocked and never taken away,"
Gore declared.

Still, Gore's endorsement did not come without strong objections. In the
executive council meeting just before the convention vote, two unions -- the
United Auto Workers and the Teamsters -- voted against endorsement, and eight others
abstained, including the Machinists, Government Employees, Paper
and Chemical Workers and the Electrical Workers. Several
other unions, including the big Service Employees and Food and Commercial
Workers, only decided to back Gore at the last minute as well.

The debate was really between Gore now and Gore later. Bradley has spoken
out on worker rights, proposed broader health insurance and made other
proposals that address labor concerns (but has not departed from his
support for free trade). Yet even though most labor leaders thought he was
generally friendly, none offered support.

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Gore boosters turned up the heat, arguing that because the primaries are
clumped together much earlier this season, labor had to act immediately if
it was going to have any influence. Supporters also argued that the AFL-CIO's
failure to endorse the vice president would be interpreted as a serious
blow. There was also strong pressure to go along with the endorsement as a
favor to Sweeney, who became a strong Gore advocate when it became
apparent that lower-key brokering of a consensus was not working, and as
a way of maintaining unity in the labor movement.

Apart from misgivings about Gore's policies or his political strength, many of
the reluctant union leaders wanted to spend more time educating and
consulting with their members and local leaders. "When we do make our
endorsement with the greatest participation by members, their
involvement in politics is greatest," argued Machinist President Tom
Buffenbarger, who abstained. "When endorsements come from the top down,
there isn't as much enthusiasm."


David Moberg

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

MORE FROM David Moberg

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