Labor's lost clout
The number of votes cast in the New Hampshire primary (101,129), in the Maine Democratic Party caucus (16,841), and in the nonbinding Vermont primary (67,709) is too small to tell anything about what will happen at the Democratic Party convention or at the November elections.Skip to next paragraph
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It is one more sign of an important change in the location of political power and influence in the United States.
In broad terms the business, banking, and industrial community dominated US politics from the first term of Ulysses S. Grant through the single term of Herbert Hoover. In effect, those elements in the community held an effective veto power over presidential nominations and elections. The Democratic Party was as business oriented as the Republicans - at times even more so.
The Democrats became so much the party of the left during the Roosevelt New Deal that it is sometimes forgotten it was a Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, who broke the Pullman strike in 1894, that Al Smith was more conservative than Herbert Hoover in 1928 and that Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned in 1932 for a balanced budget and restoration of ''law and order.''
The economic depression of the 1930s made a profound change. It undermined the authority of the banking, big business, and industrial communities. It brought about sympathy for labor from younger generations. Labor's emergence as a political force was symbolized by Roosevelt's instruction to those picking his vice-presidential running mate in 1944. ''Clear it with Sidney,'' he said. ''Sidney'' was Sidney Hillman, co-founder of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations, now merged with the American Federation of Labor).
Hillman chose Harry Truman over Henry Wallace and James F. Byrnes. That was a new high point in the story of the US labor movement and the beginning of an era in which organized labor took over the dominant role on the American political scene. From then down to President Jimmy Carter labor had the kind of influence that big business, banks, and industries had wielded in the earlier era.
Clearly a change is again taking place. The recent recession has tended to undermine the prestige and authority of organized labor just as the 1930s depression undermined big business and the banks. The younger generation came to perceive that the activities of labor had played a role in the noncompetitiveness of the American economy. The cry went up for ''deregulation.''
It began under Carter. It was carried through under Reagan. It has become the weapon which has broken the power of organized labor. It made possible the breaking of the air traffic controllers strike. It destroyed their union.
Now we arrive at the implication of the New Hampshire and Maine voting. Walter Mondale has the endorsement of the AFL-CIO. Its political action committees have provided much of the money and the campaign organization for him. But students and teachers from New Hampshire universities and the ''liberal'' communities along the Maine coast voted for Gary Hart.
The official support of organized labor used to be a political asset, almost a must, from New Deal to Carter days. Over the last ten days it has been a liability to Walter Mondale. The rest of the community is apparently repelled, not attracted, by the candidate who is backed publicly and officially by labor.
Senator Hart was not in the public limelight until this happened. He is in it now. He claims to have new ideas. So far this has been unsupported by solid evidence. His assets which have carried him this far are his physical resemblance to John F. Kennedy (increasingly noticeable in his mannerisms and gestures) and his assertion of having new ideas.
Those two assets plus the label of organized labor on Walter Mondale have given Senator Hart a chance at the brass ring. His backers probably wish that it had come more gradually and in a less spectacular form. Now every eye will be on him, dissecting his every speech and every offhand remark in the hope of discerning those ''new ideas.'' He is ''front-runner now,'' not in terms of actual committed delegates, but in terms of emotional momentum.
Meanwhile, all politicians and their managers will note that the endorsement of organized labor is no longer the political prize it for so long has been.