Labor's new tactic in stumping for Gore

Union leaders hope shoe-leather approach will renew clout at the ballot box. Big business girds to fight back.

As interest groups get ready for tough fall elections, organized labor is taking a page out of the religious right's playbook.

Soon, union leaders in workplaces around the country - a majority of them sympathetic to the Democrats - will be distributing fliers that contrast the candidates, just as Christian conservatives for years have used places of worship to influence church-goers with compare-and-contrast voter guides during election season.

For labor, though, issues of church-state separation and tax-exempt status don't enter the mix. And just as the religious right has seen its influence wane in the past few years, labor is counting on a renewed sense of political mission under AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to inspire voters in union households to fight the possibility of a Republican White House and Congress in the fall vote.

For Vice President Al Gore, the expected Democratic nominee, labor support is essential - especially in key swing states, such as Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, labor would be a 12" in importance to Gore, says Raymond Hilgert, a professor of labor relations at Washington University in St. Louis. "He's got to get all or most of the labor vote. It's a core constituency."

Last time around

Four years ago, President Clinton won in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio because of votes from union households. Labor was less successful in its bid to sway votes for Congress. The movement spent millions of dollars on expensive "issue ads" broadcast in areas with close races for Congress, to limited effect.

Now, laborites are preparing a more grass-roots-oriented effort. The first flier will focus on the presidential race, highlighting bedrock labor issues such as the minimum wage, workplace protections, and healthcare.

The business community is preparing to fight back. The United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Federal of Independent Business both plan to raise millions of dollars more than they did four years ago for use in targeted congressional races.

With only 45 to 60 congressional seats in play out of 435, both the labor movement and business can target their money - and with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives by only a six-seat margin, the stakes couldn't be higher. Less attention will be paid to Senate races, as that chamber is expected to remain in Republican hands.

"It's a reinvigorated political program," says Frank Coleman, spokesman for the US Chamber of Commerce. "We are going to raise and spend a lot of money in a number of key races, where in the past we primarily limited our activities to endorsements, which we publicized to members. Now we will spread those endorsements to the wider public, like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for business."

Mr. Gore faces some challenges with labor as he tries to defeat Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee for president in November. First, he hasn't yet secured the endorsements of two key unions, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers. Both are unhappy with the Clinton administration's support for normal trade relations with China, and though they are expected ultimately to endorse Gore, the longer it takes, the less time labor will have to mount a united effort for the fall.

Second, if Gore is to make the most of his labor support, he needs union leaders to get rank-and-file workers mobilized now - even at a time when the electorate is generally tuned out on the election. Pollsters say that despite an interesting primary season, voters still don't know Gore or Governor Bush very well, and so the battle is on for both candidates to define themselves positively before they can define each other negatively.

The AFL-CIO disagrees that it may be difficult to get workers to focus on the election.

"With George Bush in the race, our members are going to pay attention," says Deborah Dion, an AFL-CIO spokeswoman. "On every issue, his stand is against ours," she adds, citing as examples Bush's support for school vouchers, which the teachers unions oppose, and his support for some privatization of Social Security.

Avoiding controversy

Labor is expected to play down controversial social issues, such as abortion, on which some workers disagree with the Democrats. Experts also note that by no means do union households vote unanimously for Democrats, and that in the past several decades, the Republican portion of the union vote has grown.

The real wake-up call was in 1994, when the GOP swept into power in Congress, upending 40 straight years of Democratic rule during which labor had a very cozy relationship with the leadership.

Mr. Sweeney took over the presidency of the AFL-CIO in 1995, and he has beefed up the movement's political wing, making labor in some ways the bookend to the religious right. The two represent key elements of grass-roots activism within their respective parties.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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