States of the unions: the labor vote in Iowa and nationwide

For now it's blue-collar for Gephardt, white-collar for Dean - but come November, they say, they'll unite to collar Bush.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Iowans Olin Clayton and Paula Sandlin are two sides of the union movement. They are weighed down with pins, plastered in bright stickers for their chosen candidates - Rep. Dick Gephardt for Mr. Clayton, Howard Dean for Ms. Sandlin - and their political journeys may tell the story of who will win the Iowa caucuses come Monday night, and how cohesive the Democratic party will be next November.

Clayton lost two factory jobs in his native Illinois - one of which he'd held for 20 years - before moving to Des Moines. So when he listens to Dick Gephardt decry NAFTA, the political is personal indeed. Now a fork-truck driver at the local Firestone plant, Clayton has translated frustration into zealous political activism. He and fellow union members call Gephardt "one of us," and he has calculated that 86 percent of those caucusing in his precinct could support Gephardt on Monday night.

"This is the candidate who's been with us for 27 years," Clayton says, after a rally of steelworkers, teamsters, auto workers, and members of 15 other unions. "Dick has walked the walk. He's done the job." Cheers of "Gephardt!" are deafening.

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To Sandlin, a secretary at Iowa State University and president of her union chapter, the choice is more practical than passionate. At meeting of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) in Ames, not everyone is set on Dean. Promoters cite his electability and momentum more than any stance. Still, AFSCME's endorsement has led some to take another look, and they like what they see. "I like his school issues," says Sandlin, "and I think he can beat President Bush."

Come November, of course, the differences that now pit union against union and make opponents of old allies will be less visible. Sandlin and Clayton will vote for the same man, in hopes of achieving their ultimate goal: Get rid of President Bush.

But that split - blue-collar, industrial workers for Gephardt, more white-collar unions like AFSCME and service employees (SEIU) for Dean - remains telling, and mirrors what some see as a broader split along lines of class, education, and issues within the Democratic party.

"Dean has mobilized this army of young people like McCarthy did - a little more idealistic than most people, passionate about him, more upwardly mobile," says Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University. "If you do the demographics on someone like Gephardt, you'd find his base is more traditional, more small-town people, or people who he's already done something for."

In that light, says Professor Schmidt, the division isn't surprising. While many industrial workers have watched jobs go overseas and are fighting for their survival, white-collar workers feel more secure. The split endorsement, he says, "is really a reflection of the changes in American society of globalization, and how that affects different sections of the labor market."

Here in Iowa, home to 135,000 AFL-CIO union members, labor politics may be a deciding factor Monday night. Gephardt is trailing Dean closely in the most recent polls, thanks largely to the passionate union base that helped him win Iowa caucuses in 1988.

AFSCME, with 30,000 members in Iowa, launched its "Big Green Caucus Machine" tour on Tuesday. And the Alliance for Economic Justice, which represents 18 unions (more than 90,000 Iowans) and pushes the issues of jobs, trade, and healthcare, has mobilized hundreds to knock on union members' doors and visit worksites for Gephardt. Like Clayton, they feel a personal stake in their efforts.

"Our people are so energized," says Brett Voorhies, the AEJ Iowa state coordinator, as he watches volunteers pick up marching orders - whom to canvass, whom to call - at a Sheraton hotel conference room. "You see steelworkers wearing buttons for teamsters and laborers. They come back every night with great stories. And as soon as we're done here, we're picking up and going to the next state." His army includes people like Tina Anderson, a UPS driver from Yorba Linda, Calif., who's using her vacation time to campaign.

"We really need to get people to go support Dick Gephardt, the only candidate for working families," she tells one retired steelworker who answers his door in a modest Des Moines neighborhood. The man concedes he wasn't planning on caucusing, but by the end of the visit, Anderson and Patty Davis, a fellow teamster from California, have convinced him to go - and to take along his 18-year-old son. "We'll make a follow-up call this weekend," says Anderson, getting back into the car.

Not every visit is so successful: A retired auto worker disappoints the women by saying she'll be caucusing for Dean. But for most of them, there's only Gephardt.

If the Ames AFSCME members lack Anderson's zeal, many of them are still solidly behind Dean and passionate about defeating Bush. "We've got pretty sophisticated members here," explains Steve Kreisberg, AFSCME's director of collective bargaining at the Ames meeting. "They're attracted to Dean's feistiness."

They have a long relationship with Gephardt, he concedes, but "they don't see his campaign going anywhere, even if he does win Iowa."

Judy Lowe, the outreach coordinator for AFSCME's Take Back America campaign, cares so much about defeating Bush that she quit her job in Iowa's state capital to work full time for AFSCME. The Dean endorsement initially surprised her, she says, but now she's fully behind him: "His grass-roots campaign mirrors organizing and unions."

AFSCME's endorsement was based largely on internal polls of members. Most of the candidates, notes political director Larry Scanlon, are pretty strong on labor. "The issue for us became electability." Mr. Scanlon understands how important trade is to other unions - for many, it's the issue that distinguishes Gephardt - but says his members looked at the candidates more broadly.

"Yes, NAFTA's a big issue," Scanlon says. "But there's also healthcare, and social security, and education. We have to look at those, and also at the vitality and viability of the candidate."

Still, despite the current division, the unions emphasize that solidarity remains their broader theme. "Does it sadden me" that AFSCME and SEIU endorsed Dean? "Yes," says John Campbell, a Firestone worker whom other union members call "the man" when it comes to local organizing. "I've worked side by side with a lot of these people. But when all is said and done, workers still die in the factories, we still have workers' comp issues, we still have OSHA issues. There is one resounding theme amongst all of us: Bush must go."

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