By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The AFL-CIO’s decision at its national convention here this week to endorse Gore’s presidential bid comes as a huge boost to the vice president’s floundering campaign. In a nation that suffers from near-universal organizational atrophy, the AFL-CIO is just about the only institution that can actually deliver real votes. In many of the most critical early primary and caucus states — Iowa, New York, Florida (where union retirees are a potent force) and California — labor has a proven record of bringing its members to the polls. The mega-primaries of March 7 are set in two states — California and New York — where voters from union households constitute fully two-fifths of the Democratic primary electorate.
For Gore, the AFL-CIO endorsement comes as a lifeline to a drowning man. His challenger, former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, has long been running about 20 points behind Gore in nationwide polling of Democrats. This Monday, however, CNN showed Bradley shooting up to 39 percent among Democrats, while Gore hovered at 51.
Public opinion isn’t Gore’s only problem. Despite the huge political resources available to a sitting vice president, Gore has been slow to set up a campaign structure in many key states, California included. Now labor will provide Gore with a seasoned operation that comes complete with thousands of precinct walkers and phone bankers, and millions of dollars in campaign-literature and ads.
It wasn’t ever thus. Until John Sweeney won the AFL-CIO presidency four years ago, labor’s political clout had dwindled appreciably. Over the past four years, though, the federation has raised major bucks from its affiliates, trained and deployed hundreds of campaign coordinators in congressional districts around the country, and learned to fine-tune its campaigns to address the most pressing concerns of its members. Nowhere has labor’s ability to win been more manifest than here in California, where it waged a brilliant campaign in 1998 to defeat Proposition 226, an initiative, intended to curtail union political programs, that was widely expected to prevail.
In short, Al Gore just got himself the best field operation in the nation — over the misgivings of a number of union presidents, who nonetheless voted to give it to him.A mere week ago, the Gore endorsement was anything but a sure thing. The leaders of many of the federation’s largest and most important unions harbored major misgivings about his candidacy. The most serious reservations were those of the unions most heavily impacted by trade agreements — the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters in particular. The administration’s support for trade treaties that failed to create enforceable labor standards and worker rights has been a constant source of contention between Gore and labor — and for unions like the UAW, which sees poverty-wage auto plants springing up just across the Mexican border, or the Teamsters, who face the prospect of poverty-wage Mexican trucks rolling across that border, this argument is anything but academic.
The vice president was fortunate in his choice of opponents. To the considerable frustration of the industrial unions, Bill Bradley is even more of a believer than Gore in the gospel of free trade. Indeed, when House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt addressed the AFL-CIO convention on Monday and thundered his indignation at NAFTA and the entire free-trade order, there was an almost palpable regret in the hall that Gephardt had taken himself out of the presidential race earlier this year. This was the speech the unions had wanted to hear from Gore or Bradley.
Other unions entertained other doubts about the vice president — not least, grave apprehensions about his ability to win. The United Food and Commercial Workers have a close strategic bond to the Teamsters. And for Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — California’s largest union, and key to Gore’s prospects in the March 7 primary — the choice was complicated indeed. Nearly half of the SEIU’s 1.3 million members work in health care, and a couple of weeks ago Bradley had unveiled a proposal for near-universal health coverage that plainly eclipsed the incremental augmentations that Gore had proposed. By allotting an estimated $65 billion from projected budget surpluses, Bradley had devised a plan that would cover the vast majority of the 44 million uninsured Americans.
"Bradley’s plan goes well beyond anything we thought a candidate would say just six months ago," says SEIU spokesperson Matt Witt. "We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the campaign debate so far on health care, and workers rights."
The SEIU is also more painstaking than most national unions in polling its members on presidential preference; the process won’t be completed until roughly the end of the year. So Stern, like the leaders of the Auto Workers and the Teamsters and the Food and Commercial Workers, had reason to wait — to defer an AFL-CIO endorsement at least until later in the year.
All of which left Federation president Sweeney facing the possibility that the AFL-CIO might not deliver for Gore. In other times, with other polling numbers, with more money in the bank, with more good press, the Gore campaign could have endured such a setback. For the actual existing Gore campaign, however, with a candidate surrounded by staffers you wouldn’t wish on Donald Trump, a simple deferral of a federation endorsement might have proved fatal. So on Friday, Sweeney told his fellow presidents that Gore needed this now, that he had been there for labor on countless items over the past seven years (which he had, except on trade and welfare reform), that the clock was ticking and that this was the time that labor needed to act.