If there were a sure bet in this presidential campaign, it seemed to be Al Gore's support from unions. That was before Teamsters' president James Hoffa took a good, long look at Pat Buchanan.
Teamsters spokesman Bret Caldwell said the economic policies of Buchanan, the presumptive Reform Party presidential candidate, have more than earned the erstwhile CNN pundit the attention of Hoffa and the Teamsters.
"No party should assume that the Teamsters is going to support them," Caldwell said. "We're open to all the candidates at this point, and that includes Buchanan. I think that what you have to look at is the difference and the influence of big business on [both] major parties.
"We're looking out for the best interest of our members," he said. "We're the largest affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and we're not going to rush to a decision."
Of course, good old-fashioned brown-nosing doesn't hurt. During his address to a Teamsters rally during the protests in Washington last week, Buchanan said that should he become president, he knew who he would appoint as U.S. Trade Representative. "If I get there, it won't be [U.S. Trade Representative] Charlene Barshefsky sitting down in Beijing, it'll be Jim Hoffa."
Hoffa returned the compliment. "Pat Buchanan is probably the only person who has it right with regard to trade," he told CNN's Judy Woodruff. "Gore doesn't talk about it. Bush doesn't talk about it."
If nothing else, the courtship between Hoffa and Buchanan is like a co-dependent relationship between two headline junkies who use each other to get their fix. But if the Teamsters really do break ranks with the AFL-CIO, it would be a major black eye to the vice president's campaign.
The Teamsters, the largest member group of the AFL-CIO with 1.5 million members, has a reputation for being an unpredictable lot. The union has broken ranks in the past to support Republican candidates, backing Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and George Bush in 1988.
Buchanan, of course, has a long, well-documented history of alienating large numbers of people -- some, presumably who are in unions -- from Jews to immigrants ("Jose, we ain't gonna let you in again.") to gays ("With 80,000 dead of AIDS, 3,000 more buried each month, our promiscuous homosexuals appear literally hell-bent on Satanism and suicide.").
And yet on policy, he sounds pretty fair to the Teamsters. Caldwell said the Teamsters' reluctance to endorse the vice president can be pinned, in part, to the union's opposition to a bill that would normalize trade relations with China. The measure comes up before the House on May 22, and enjoys the strong support of the Clinton administration -- and Gore. Buchanan, not surprisingly, opposes the bill.
Other labor groups oppose the bill, but most have already backed Gore. At its fall meeting in Los Angeles in October, the AFL-CIO endorsed the vice president. "We're not going to take anything for granted, but we feel good that working people and labor leaders understand that Al Gore is the candidate who will fight for working families," said Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway.
Reform Party national vice chairman Gerry Moan said his party, with Buchanan as the presumptive nominee, is the only political party looking out for American workers. "We're the only party that represents true labor," he said. "Buchanan's our lead candidate at this point in time, and he's truly got an 'America First' message. It's not plain vanilla like some of the other folks. An endorsement from the Teamsters would be a natural fit."
Moan said the AFL is backing Gore only because its "leaders want to sit at the same table and hobnob with the big boys. The biggest problem with some leaders in the labor movement is that they've gone inside the Beltway and stayed there. They forgot about what the little guys are going through. The trappings of power are very consuming."
But AFL-CIO California spokeswoman Sharon Cornu says a coalition with Buchanan doesn't make sense. "The paths of union members and Pat Buchanan cross on the issue of fair trade, but he's not traveling the same road," said Cornu. Buchanan, for example, doesn't share the AFL-CIO's support for an increase in the minimum wage or the need for collective bargaining.
The Gore campaign, meanwhile, emphasizes the common ground the vice president shares with labor, and focuses on contrasting Gore with George W. Bush. "I think we've agreed to disagree on certain issues, like the WTO for example, but there are many issues where we agree. The major differences between George Bush and Al Gore on those issues couldn't be more stark -- from workers' right to organize to the minimum wage," said Hattaway. "These are key issues for working families, and Bush is off in right field."
With or without the Teamsters, union support is a linchpin for Democratic election hopes in November, both in retaking the House and holding on to the White House. "We may be outspent by the other side come November, but we sure won't be out-organized, and that's due in large part to the efforts of organized labor," Hattaway said.
With the support of most labor leaders, Gore and his fellow Democrats are raking in campaign contributions. Two of the three top soft-money contributors in this cycle thus far are unions who have given to Democrats, according to records at the Center for Responsive Politics. Democrats have received more than $2.5 million in soft money from just two labor groups -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Communications Workers of America, while hospital and health care workers have chipped in another $500,000.
In addition to the soft money, so far, labor PACs have contributed $19.8 million to presidential candidates this cycle, with all but $2 million of that money going to Democrats. Topping that list, transportation unions have given more than $5.1 million thus far ($4.3 million to Democrats) while building trades unions have given more than $4.3 million ($4 million to Democrats). All told, unions have contributed $31.3 million during the 1999-'00 election cycle, with 93 percent of that money going to Democrats.
But the problem for Gore is not with labor leaders and their money, it is with the rank and file members and their votes. Moan said a disconnect between union members and their leadership is a problem the labor union must confront.
"The big corporations are selling us out," he said. "Until the union members wake up, the leaders are not going to feel any pressure to practice what they preach. If the Teamsters endorse Gore or Bush, what does that say about their attitude toward the rank and file?"
For Gore, the problem is that there may be people on the left and right -- Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and Buchanan -- who appeal to portions of the Democratic base. In the latest Zogby poll, Nader and Buchanan took 8 percent between them, and seemed to hurt Gore's standing more than Bush's.
Buchanan himself told Fortune magazine that he thinks his candidacy will hurt Gore more than Bush. He said he plans to focus his campaign in key union-heavy battleground states including Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. "We're going right after Democratic voters and right after Al Gore," he said.