Did Labor Jump the Gun?

If Vice President Al Gore wins the Democratic nomination for president, he will have John Sweeney and the AFL-CIO to thank. The AFL-CIO boosted Gore's flagging campaign in October when it endorsed him over former Senator Bill Bradley. And in the primaries and caucuses, the labor movement could provide the winning margin in key states like New York, California, Ohio, and Michigan, where it commands about 30 percent of the likely Democratic voters.

But will labor's endorsement of Gore help labor itself? That may seem like a stupid question, but there are dis- turbing parallels between the AFL- CIO's endorsement of Gore and its unfortunate endorsement of former Vice President Walter Mondale in October 1983.

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The late Lane Kirkland is now seen through the prism of his last dismal years at the helm of the AFL-CIO, but when Kirkland took over for George Meany in 1979, he was a vigorous reformer trying to revive a troubled institution. Faced with a decline in labor's share of the work force, Kirkland promoted organizing and put the federation behind a 29-union effort in Houston. He developed ties with new left groups that Meany had shunned, and organized a national Solidarity Day in 1981. And he tried to bring the leadership close to the rank and file by staging town meetings around the country.

These efforts failed utterly to arrest labor's decline, and by 1983, Kirkland was placing his hopes on electing a pro-labor Democratic president. Prodded by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Kirkland proposed that the AFL-CIO guarantee a suitable nominee by endorsing a primary candidate. That fall, the federation's General Board endorsed Mondale even though several other candidates, including senators John Glenn and Alan Cranston, had pro-labor records, and even though the federation's members were not consulted on whom it supported.

That proved to be a mistake. The unions got Mondale the nomination, but Reagan tarred Mondale in the general election as the candidate of special interests at the same time that Mondale, secure in the AFL-CIO's endorsement, embraced a fiscal policy that was to the right of Reagan. Mondale was routed, and the result deepened the AFL-CIO leadership's estrangement from its own base. It signaled the end of Kirkland's attempt to revive the federation as well as the last time he would recommend that the federation endorse a primary candidate.

Sweeney took office in 1995 in a spirit similar to Kirkland's. His commitment to reform was symbolized by his selections of former community organizer Steve Rosenthal to lead the federation's political arm and Richard Bensinger, the founder of the Organizing Institute, to be the head of the AFL-CIO's Organizing Department. Rosenthal sought to create a grass-roots political operation in congressional districts that would last longer than a single election. Sweeney promised to spend 30 percent of the federation's total budget on organizing, and backed Bensinger's campaign to get locals to spend 20 percent of their budgets on organizing.

But four years later, the picture is far from rosy. Labor has gained 200,000 members since 1995, but its share of the work force has fallen from 14.9 percent to 13.9 percent. Rosenthal has had success in House races and state referenda, but has not been able to build permanent grass-roots organizations. The AFL-CIO and Bensinger enjoyed success with Union Summer, which exposed young people to the labor movement, but the federation's own major organizing effort--among strawberry pickers in California--was a miserable flop. Some union locals raised their organizing budget, but at most, several hundred out of 3,000 are spending the proposed 20 percent of their budgets on organizing. According to knowledgeable sources, the AFL-CIO itself is spending only about 15 percent of its own budget--not the 30 percent promised by Sweeney--on organizing. Worse still, Bensinger, who was not regarded as a "team player," was replaced in 1998 by Sweeney crony Kirk Adams, who had no expertise in organizing.

The federation's decision to endorse Gore did not come out of desperation, but in failing to hold a referendum on whether and whom to endorse in the Democratic primary, it demonstrated a model of top-down politics similar to Kirkland's in 1983. The AFL-CIO did commission an opinion poll at the end of last summer, which showed Gore ahead, by two to one--but at that point, most union members were unfamiliar with Bradley. (One official told me this January, "I don't think our members even know who [Bradley] is.") Within the federation, the decision to endorse early came from Sweeney and from AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, who heads the federation's political action committee. Both men enjoyed cordial personal relationships with Gore, and had enlisted his help when others in the administration ignored their wishes--whether on privatizing welfare work or dispensing worker training funds. "Whenever we needed special help, he's the person we went to," explained one Sweeney associate.

Sweeney and McEntee did not believe that Gore's political outlook was fundamentally different from Bradley's, but they felt they owed Gore for his favors and could expect more for themselves and the labor movement in return for their early support. There is, no doubt, some truth to this, but it is the politics of K Street special interests, even when practiced by labor unions rather than businesses. Of course, it makes sense for AFSCME to operate in this matter--as a union of government employees, its growth depends almost entirely on political decisions--but it does not make sense for the rest of the labor movement, which depends for its political strength on the active involvement and support of its membership.

Other union leaders also felt favorably toward Gore but, because they did not see an important difference between the two candidates, felt no urgency in endorsing Gore so early. These leaders acquiesced to the endorsement because Sweeney's public declaration of support put them in a position where if they did not endorse, they would be repudiating Gore and Sweeney. A few groups, like the AFT, conducted their own polls; most did not. One vice president of an international union that endorsed Gore in October told me that he had "no idea" what his members thought about Gore and Bradley. And the president of the painters' union endorsed Gore even though the delegates at his union's convention had backed Bradley in a straw poll.

The strongest resistance to the Gore endorsement came from James Hoffa, the president of the Teamsters, George Becker of the United Steelworkers, and Steve Yokich of the United Auto Workers, who were angered by the administration's support of NAFTA, fast track, and the World Trade Organization. One Hoffa adviser explained the Teamster president's position: "That Mr. McEntee wants to watch TV with Mr. Clinton or Gore is of no consequence to [Hoffa]. His view was that there is a set of issues that serve our people. With regard to that broad set of issues, the only difference between Bradley and Gore was that Bradley has a chance of being elected president." Sweeney and McEntee, however, were able to get the two-thirds support they needed for the endorsement.

s the primaries begin, the unions' junior officials, staff, and rank-and-file activists have little enthusiasm for Gore, but even less for Bradley. Some whom I interviewed expressed support for the federation's endorsement, but others questioned how it was done. One staff member of an important California local said, "Several times I have raised the point in various union meetings. We talk about empowerment and members' voices, and we're going to have to turn around and ask our members to call and walk precincts ... for a candidate that labor has endorsed without any member involvement. When something is so flagrant, it's like a big dead elephant in the middle of the room."

It would be a mistake to carry this analogy too far. If Gore does win the nomination, labor's endorsement won't hurt him the way it did Mondale. (Sweeney's biggest challenge will be to lead the federation's campaign against granting China permanent normal trade relations at the same time as he is rallying the members to back a candidate who supports it.) And no matter what happens in 2000--Gore could easily lose--Sweeney is not about to abandon the attempt to organize workers. Rosenthal's efforts have also given labor clout in local elections that it is not likely to lose. But the way Sweeney and his colleagues went about endorsing Gore is reason to worry that they could be catching the K Street bug that eventually crippled Kirkland and the federation during the 1980s. ¤

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