‘Show Me,’ Labor Brass Tell Democratic Hopefuls

By E.J. Kessler

Published April 18, 2003, issue of April 18, 2003.
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The Democratic presidential hopefuls’ battle for labor support kicked into high gear last week, as eight of the nine contenders — all except Florida Senator Bob Graham — strutted their stuff at the Washington legislative conference of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades department.

Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri — a former House minority and majority leader — came away with a prize: the campaign season’s first endorsement by a national union, the 135,000-member Iron Workers.

Despite this endorsement and Gephardt’s record as labor’s most reliable friend in Congress, the push for endorsements appears to be shaping up to be highly competitive, labor leaders and operatives say. With such a large field — and some general dissatisfaction with the entire crop of contenders — no one candidate may gain the two-thirds vote needed to earn the coveted endorsement of the AFL-CIO, a federation representing 13 million workers in 65 national and international unions, at its August convention.

Union endorsements are important for the Democrats. Not only do unions spend millions on pro-Democratic issues ads, they constitute the troops in most of the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts. Teachers’ union members, in particular, often involve themselves in politics as campaign volunteers and operatives. Union members also form the single largest bloc of delegates at the Democratic National Convention.

Gephardt’s campaign chief of staff, Steve Elmendorf, his chief operative dealing with labor, told the Forward that the candidate was courting support union by union. “We’re going door to door talking to individual labor presidents,” he said. While it may be hard work, Elmendorf said, he expects his man to prevail. “I don’t get the sense that anyone other than Gephardt is making progress with these labor unions,” he said.

Even so, Show Me Stater Gephardt — not to mention his chief rivals, Senators John Kerry, Joseph Lieberman and John Edwards and former Vermont governor Howard Dean — just might encounter a “show me” attitude among labor brass. Some labor leaders seem less than enthusiastic about Gephardt’s chances of being elected president — and about Democrats generally.

Unions “are becoming practical. They would like to support Dick, but there’s some concern about whether he could win the nomination and beat Bush,” said Northeastern University political economist Barry Bluestone. “They want the most electable candidate, and they’re not sure who that is, like most liberals.” Then, too, the labor movement is divided on some issues, such as the war in Iraq; Bluestone estimated an even split among labor, with the trades generally supportive of the war and the public employees against.

Elmendorf, the Gephardt staffer, identified two unions, the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America and the 1.5 million-member Service Employees International Union, as central to his candidate’s strategy because of their voting strength in the AFL-CIO.

CWA’s national president, Morton Bahr, declined a request for an interview through an aide, but Arthur Cheliotes, the scrappy president of CWA’s 8,000-worker New York-based Local 1180, gave the Forward an earful. “The labor movement has a real problem with the Democratic Party,” Cheliotes said. “The Democratic Party treats us like a battered spouse, in that we’re always there supporting them, but when they get into office, they forget about us.”

Gephardt, Cheliotes said, “has been good on most issues, but on stuff like the budget and the war he leaves much to be desired, honestly.” Then, too, Cheliotes said, Republican control of Congress has meant that Gephardt “hasn’t been able to do anything for anyone for a while.” In particular, Gephardt’s support of the Iraq war “does not bode well,” Cheliotes said.

Not that Cheliotes sounds excited about any other of the contenders. “Howard Dean has strengths and weaknesses, as does Kerry,” he said. Lieberman? “What’s the difference between Lieberman and President Bush?” Cheliotes asked rhetorically.

Amy Dean, head of the AFL-CIO’s South Bay Labor Council, a federation representing more than 100,000 workers in California’s Silicon Valley, told the Forward that “there’s a lot of sympathy for Gephardt based on the fact that so many union heads and political directors have relationships with him.” Even so, she said, Gephardt by no means has a lock on labor. “There’s some support for John Kerry,” given that some unions feel he may be the most viable contender to beat Bush, she said, and Howard Dean “resonates… because of his message of hope.”

The odd men out are Edwards and Lieberman. “I’m not hearing anyone say anything about Edwards,” Amy Dean said of the North Carolinian. As for Lieberman, “I couldn’t imagine him getting any support,” she said.

David Hecker, president of the 30,000-member Michigan Federation of Teachers, said that while it is early in the endorsement process, the state’s teachers and other trade unionists had formed some general impressions about the candidates. Gephardt “has an outstanding record, no question,” he said, while Kerry is “great on labor and education” and Dean “has done tremendous things in Vermont.” Former Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun — a candidate who, as a black woman, has a reservoir of support in Michigan’s large black community — is perceived as “solid on labor and education.” Unions consider Lieberman, on the other hand, to be “too conservative,” Hecker said. “We don’t like his position on school vouchers, even though he mitigated it somewhat as a vice-presidential candidate.”

Altogether, Hecker said, “We’d like to get someone rock solid on the issues, but sometimes we’ll compromise on that to get to electability.” His union recently met with some Kerry staffers. “We had some questions to ask Senator Kerry,” Hecker said, sounding agnostic. “We don’t want to hear generalizations. We want specific statements.”

The Gephardt and Lieberman campaigns, naturally, defended their men’s records.

“Gephardt’s pro-labor record is unparalleled and his experience as a leader in the House reflects that,” said the campaign’s communications director, Erik Smith. “He has steadfastly fought for a livable wage, responsible trade agreements and the right to organize. He has both steered pro-labor legislation to passage and fought efforts by the Republican Congress to roll back workplace protections and economic opportunity.”

Lieberman spokesman Jano Cabrera said the Connecticut senator had opposed Bush’s tax cut and the cutting of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, supported raising the minimum wage and held Bush’s feet to the fire with the David-Bacon Act, which requires that the new Homeland Security Department hire union workers.

No matter who wins the bulk of labor endorsements, the road only gets harder from there, union leaders said.

“This will be a tough election for the Democratic Party,” Amy Dean said. “Working people are deeply concerned about their futures and the economic viability of the country, but people are willing to trade the important for the urgent, with international affairs dominating their deepest, darkest concerns.”

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