Photo by Michael Powers

It took John Sweeney calling in all his favors, but Al Gore has finally had himself a good day.

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.

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.�

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