Pittsburgh — Organized labor is poised to play a pivotal role in the 1988 presidential election. Several of this year's battleground states - California, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania - are heavily unionized. In a close election, labor votes could tip the balance for Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee.
Perhaps labor's best chance of showing its clout lies here in Pennsylvania.
Of the eight largest states, Pennsylvania gave Democratic nominee Walter Mondale his best showing in the '84 presidential election - 46 percent. Pittsburgh is the only major metropolitan area where the percentage of votes for President Reagan declined between 1980 and '84.
This time, union leaders here are adamant about a Democratic win in Pennsylvania.
``The labor movement just has to do the job,'' says Paul Stackhouse, head of the Allegheny County Labor Council. ``We can't afford another another eight years'' of Republican rule.
``We are saying this has to be a Democratic year in Pennsylvania,'' adds Jack Sheehan, legislative director of the United Steelworkers of America, whose international headquarters is in Pittsburgh.
Unions in the state are so eager to elect a Democrat to the White House, he adds, that at last month's AFL-CIO state convention, they withheld endorsements for some worthy local Republican candidates so as not to detract from the push for the national Democratic ticket.
The union leaders' enthusiasm is evident. The Steelworkers plan to contact each of its members eight times from now until the election - not only in Pennsylvania, but nationwide. The union's Pittsburgh headquarters houses a phone bank for the Dukakis campaign. Every Monday, leaders of various union locals in the city gather to discuss strategy.
``I think labor is geared up,'' says Kim Moran, a labor coordinator at Dukakis state headquarters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's capital. ``They are anxious to get into the campaign.''
The question is whether that enthusiasm among union leaders will filter down to the rank and file.
Unions, after all, worked very hard in 1984 to elect Walter Mondale. But according to exit polls, union households gave the Democratic nominee only 53 percent of the vote. Even among AFL-CIO households, the total was 61 percent - less than the 65 percent margin that union leaders had hoped for.
Since that time, the economy has improved - another good omen for Republican nominee George Bush. Some economists see even better growth ahead for the industrial Midwest as its manufacturing sector rebounds.
So far, there is little evidence that the rank and file have focused on the presidential contest, Dukakis officials say.
``I don't think voters have a solid sense of either candidate,'' says Joan Baggett, national labor liaison for the Dukakis campaign. ``The debates will have a big effect on them.''
In fact, a lot will be riding on the voter-education efforts of the Duakakis campaign.
``The candidate has to generate the enthusiasm,'' says Marick Masters, a professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh. ``And so far Dukakis hasn't done that.''
If the situation doesn't turn around in the next few weeks, it won't be for lack of trying among local labor leaders.
A new survey of 950 local leaders of the Steelworkers, coauthored by Professor Masters, finds broad support for the union's political involvement and fund raising. Pittsburgh area officials are planning an all-out voter registration effort in the 2 weeks before the registration deadline.