Labor is keeping its options open as it looks to the Democratic convention in New York. Spokesmen for a number of the country's largest unions are standing by their earlier pledges of support for President Carter, although not all are happy about their lowest poll rating ever while seeking re-election.
Heads of another 35 unions affiliated with AFL-CIO joined in a statement recently urging Democratic members of Congress working for an open convention to "keep up the fight." They said they speak for "a lot of union members . . . acroos America who will be disappointed if the convention is cut and dried."
"If the Democratic convention is open and above board the delegates can pick a candidate who stands a real chance to rally America behind a winning, upbeat program," the statement said. The group endorsing the statement is about equal in size to the progroup.
In Detroit, Douglas A. Fraser, president of the United Automobile Workers, announced that he continues to support Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's candidacy personally as, he says, "do many of the UAW members who have been chosen delegates and alternates to the convention."
At the same time, Mr. Fraser says that Vice-President Walter Mondale is "a longtime friend to me and the UAW, a leader for whom we have great respect and admiration."
Mr. Fraser noted that the vice-president's positions and those of UAW "have been virtually one and the same during his 17 years in the US Senate." The comment was politically significant because Mr. Mondale has been suggested as a compromise candidate for the Democratic nominee for president. AFL-CIO and a number of major unions, including the independent International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) have not yet taken official positions and are not expected to until after the convention. In past elections the IBT has given substantial support to Republicans.
Labor will be heavily represented at the convention in contrast to the few union delegates and alternatives who attended the Republican meeting in Detroit.
Traditionally, organized labor and the Democrats have worked together closely. Unions were largely credited with bailing out the faltering party in the 1976 elections. AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education (COPE) claimed that labor's political activities put Jimmy Carter is the White House.
But much of labor's dissatisfaction with the White House today stems from a feeling that his indebtedness was not adequately repaid. So far there is no accurate count of how many unionists will be among the voting delegates. Estimates run well up into the hundreds, with the majority from heavily industrialized states with votes the Democrats need.
The UAW's large delegation committed to Senator Kennedy plans to caucus in New York early next week to coordinate convention strategy. COPE and political committees of major unions have set up communications centers to keep in close touch with labor delegates and will have representatives on the floor at all times. Al Barkan, COPE's director, is expected to be one of the busiest men in Manhattan.
The number of delegates from labor's rank and file is an indication of the importance the Democrats place on union support for campaign money and even more for manpower.
AFL0CIO also has the most effective political computer operation in US politics: Access to it could be vital for a victory in marginal election districts and precincts.
Right now, labor support could be up for grabs. The President's cause received a substantial boost last week when the United Steel Workers convention in Los Angeles endorsed him for nomination and re-election. Other unions supporting him include the independent National Education Association, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Seafearers International Union, the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), the Communication Workers of America, and the Office and Professional Employees International Union.
Wiliam Wynn, president of the 1.2 million member UFCW, second largest union in the AFL-CIO, said, "We still stand with the President. . . . We think the President is electable. The election is not today but comes in November." He says the group believes that it is "highly unlikely" that Mr. Carter can be denied renomination.
Sol Chaikin, president of the ILGWU, said, "Our endorsement of Carter is based on the fact he's the best available candidate. I wouldn't say that if people gave me the sole opportunity to choose I might not conceivably come up with someone better."
On the other side, Albert Shanker, president of the powerful American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which has endorsed Senator Kennedy, said the Billy Carter situation is, "one additional straw in undermining confidence in the President."
He said that if there is "an agreed on alternative candidate" it would not be difficult to deny the nomination to Mr. Carter. His concern, and that of other unions in the group that includes that AFT is that a losing Democratic president could cost the Democrats "both houses of Congress and many state and local offices."