AFL-CIO could sway the presidential primaries in '84

Some important political news is just now being comprehended by those who are paid to write it: The AFL-CIO has decided it will attempt to endorse a presidential candidate on the eve of the 1984 primaries, and this, of itself, might wrap up the nomination.

Traditionally, the AFL-CIO has waited until after the national conventions to choose between the major candidates. During the 1980 primaries, however, individual member unions sometimes supported different candidates. In 1984, the AFL-CIO leadership would like to have member labor unions speak with one voice.

Comments Ted VanDyk, president of the Center for National Policy (a Democratic think tank): ''Were there a blanket labor endorsement of a candidate who was a front-runner at that time, it would give him an enormous advantage and momentum.''

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D) of South Carolina, himself an aspirant for the 1984 nomination, concedes that such an endorsement would likely go to someone else, like Kennedy or Mondale, and that it would ''make it difficult'' for him in terms of capturing rank-and-file worker support.

Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy's right-hand man, takes a different view. ''I don't think labor's endorsement would wrap up the election for anyone,'' he told reporters the other morning over breakfast.

AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, who was on hand to talk to reporters on the morning preceding the session with Sorensen, talked about the labor organization's decision to try to influence the outcome of the nominating process.

Why the endorsement?

I think there is a strong desire on the part of my colleagues that we should become engaged in the primary struggles actively and in a united way; collectively, instead of going through the previous experiences of splitting in four or five different directions.

You're thinking about making an endorsement, or hoping to, in December of '83 , isn't that correct?

We haven't made a decision as to the exact timing of it. We have made a decision that we will set up a procedure that will undertake to endorse a candidate prior to the '84 primaries.

Well, if you had a situation like today, with Kennedy apparently 2 to 1 ahead and then you endorse him - isn't the race for the nomination almost over even before the first primary?

Well, I certainly hope that we'll have some influence on the outcome of the primaries. I wouldn't want to disclaim that. But I certainly am not at all ready to even begin to make a judgment as to who's most likely to get our endorsement.

If you had next year Senator Kennedy, Senator Glenn, Senator Cranston, Vice-President Mondale, and a few others, all of whom have been good friends of labor, why would the AFL-CIO endorse one candidate out of them?

Because that is the only way in which we can effectively participate in the primary process. . . . If we're not in it, others will be and the decision will be made by other elements of society without the participation of working people. And we don't regard that as in our best interests or necessarily in the best interests of the country.

As you look at this '84 thing, isn't there a real possibility that the idea of endorsing a candidate will look a lot more complicated in reality than it looks on paper?

That's possible.

Because isn't it likely that you will have at least two leading Democratic figures with long prolabor records to choose from? So why shouldn't you leave the decision of endorsement to your affiliates? Why should you tell the steelworkers of Pennsylvania whom they should support?

I want the steelworkers to tell me. That's the object of the exercise - to explore whether or not it is possible to get a sufficient consensus. And we will undoubtedly use the same rules that we require of our state bodies - that there be a two-thirds support before an endorsement is possible. And that will come from our affiliates, when we assemble them to consider this.

It's not a question of my telling the steelworkers whom they should support. I expect to have little influence on the matter.

You're talking about two-thirds of the leadership?

No. Unions vote by their membership.

If you don't get the consensus, then you don't endorse? Is that correct?

That's right, and our individual affiliates then will be free to do as they please.

Mr. Kirkland, have you considered the political risks involved in endorsing a Democratic candidate in that if you endorse candidate X and candidate X loses in the primaries, the potential is that organized labor's political influence could be diminished for some years to come?

I don't accept that conclusion if that should occur. But we have never worked in a climate when we were certain of the outcome when we decided on a course of action. If we did that, we would be surrendering before we had a chance to have a go at an issue. That's not our way.

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