BOSTON — ORGANIZED labor is beating the snow-covered bushes of New Hampshire for a presidential candidate. Like many Democrats, it's having a hard time making up its mind.
The indecision and disunity means labor is passing up a big opportunity to wield its influence. For while union strength is very small in New Hampshire, it is extremely well placed.
"It may not be a big movement, but it's not a big [Democratic] party," says Richard Hurd, director of labor studies at Cornell University and a longtime observer of New Hampshire labor. "They have a disproportionate impact."
"If they were to unite behind a candidate and get out the vote in the traditional way of years past, they could certainly be a big factor," adds Patti Blanchette, a Democratic activist and former state legislator.
Instead, labor support is split, primarily between Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. The Democratic Party is the focus of labor's efforts because roughly two-thirds of union workers are Democratic.
Industrial unions generally support Senator Harkin, who has the strongest pro-labor record.
"Our people are for Harkin," says Sam Dawson, political director of the United Steelworkers of America. "There's no question about it."
Other unions, such as the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, seem more inclined to back Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
"I think what happened is that the Harkin campaign at some point decided that it was labor's endorsed candidate," says Rochelle Horowitz, political director of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The Harkin campaign was "taking too many things for granted."
Admittedly, the AFT is tiny in New Hampshire. Even so, the well-organized forces of Governor Clinton made several overtures to the union; the Harkin campaign did not. By the end of January, Ms. Horowitz expects at least five of the union's international vice presidents to come out for Clinton.
The Democratic campaign started so late and involves such unfamiliar faces that many union workers have not decided who they're backing.
"I don't think you can look at any of them and say they have a basic understanding of what we mean in terms of collective bargaining," says Joanna Reagan, assistant to the president for government relations at the International Union of Bricklayers.
Officially, all these unions have agreed not to endorse anybody until the AFL-CIO finds a two-thirds majority for a particular candidate. When the industrial unions asked AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland two weeks ago if two-thirds of the unions supported Harkin, Mr. Kirkland found no such consensus.
That's a big loss for Harkin, political observers say, because he cannot rely on an organizational shove from a united labor movement to propel his campaign.
"I don't see the Harkin campaign really catching on and spreading its message as I would have expected," says Ms. Blanchette, who says she is uncommitted. Sen. Bob "Kerrey and Clinton are head to head in the first position. But you have to throw [former Sen. Paul] Tsongas in the middle of that."
"I think Clinton is going to win the primary," says Dick Molan, a Harkin supporter and member of the state executive committee for the Democratic Party. "He's better organized than the others. If anybody's going to catch him, I think it's Kerry."
Union members haven't taken a strong, united stand because members don't yet know the candidates, say union activists. In part, it's a sign that labor will be happy with whichever Democrat ends up on top. Their prime objective is to defeat George Bush. "The mood around here is: Let's get a nominee and get going," says Horowitz.
If the New Hampshire primary creates overwhelming momentum for a particular candidate, it is possible the AFL-CIO could endorse him quickly. The labor federation will be meeting in Bal Harbour, Fla., when the primary returns come in.
Some union political directors suggest an endorsement could come as early as that meeting. Other union officials say they are skeptical that any Democrat will wrap up labor's endorsement so quickly. "I think it's going to take awhile to shake out," Ms. Reagan says.