It was this institutional imperative that was the most important — the need for labor to emerge united and able to exercise its clout, the ability of Sweeney to deliver his federation. There are union presidents who remain lukewarm toward Gore who believe that Sweeney has done yeoman work to revive what had been a dying movement. In the final analysis, the endorsement wasn’t delivered out of deference to Gore, much less Bill Clinton. The AFL-CIO is endorsing Al Gore because John Sweeney said that they needed to do it.
Not all the unions came aboard. The Teamsters and the Auto Workers didn’t go along with the Federation endorsement, but neither did they raise a notable stink. As for the others, the United Food and Commercial Workers endorsed Gore over the weekend. The SEIU said they’d make no endorsement of their own at this time, but Stern assured Sweeney that the votes would be there this week, if needed, for an AFL-CIO nod. On Monday morning, I asked another president the reason his own union would vote for the Gore endorsement. "I support John Sweeney," he said — and scurried away.
For the past quarter-century, the history of Democratic presidential-primary politics has been a history of class conflict. From the Walter Mondale–Gary Hart race of 1984 (Mondale had the AFL-CIO’s support that year) to the Clinton–Paul Tsongas contest of ’92, the primary season has often seen one candidate (Hart or Tsongas, for instance) talking clean politics and environmentalism to an upscale electorate, while his rival runs a bread-and-butter campaign aimed at working-class and non-white voters.
At first glance, the contest between Bradley and Gore may seem likely to unfold along similar lines — all the more since Gore now comes complete with union label. Polls show that Gore’s support grows stronger the further down the income scale you go, while Bradley polls best among upper-income Democrats.
But Bradley is unlikely to wage the kind of labor-bashing campaign that Hart ran against Mondale in ’84. For one thing, Bradley, unlike Hart, sought the AFL-CIO’s support. Secondly, Bradley’s emerging platform, his health-care proposal most particularly, is specifically pitched to working-class voters. And finally, this isn’t the old George Meany–Lane Kirkland AFL-CIO anymore: Labor isn’t seen as (and in fact, isn’t) just a bunch of guys with big cigars, an inviting target for any opportunistic candidate. (Indeed, the goodwill that Sweeney has won for endeavoring to reinvent the culture of organizing has spared him much of the criticism that Kirkland received for pushing the Mondale endorsement in ’84 — though, in truth, the process this time around wasn’t notably more democratic than it was then.)
Conversely, neither can the unions easily go after Bradley for his deviations from proper working-class policy. (Should they even want to: Bradley, after all, could always win.) His mega-deviation — his free-trade mania — is shared by Gore. As to his occasional bad votes in the Senate from 10 years back, says one California labor leader, "That stuff won’t play with our members at all."
Finally, it is the very closeness of Gore and Bradley on matters of importance to union voters that will make labor’s upcoming campaign for the veep the most challenging it has waged. They don’t have Newt Gingrich to kick around anymore, or the anti-union zealotry of Proposition 226 to oppose. If Sweeney & Co. can save Al Gore and his stumblebum campaign, they are a better political operation than they themselves think they are — and the best one America has seen in a long, long time.