The Democrats' `message of tomorrow'

AS you've probably noted, it's now a fact of life among purveyors of conventional political wisdom that organized labor has become a hindrance to the Democratic Party. Sure, unions were indispensable in the campaigns that put Democrats Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and even Carter into the White House. But that was then. That was before Mondale, who had more official labor support than any presidential candidate since Roosevelt, yet suffered one of the worst defeats in history.

The situation now is drastically different. Or at least it is according to Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi. She's the former chairwoman of the party in California who argued so heatedly against the election of union-favorite Paul Kirk as chairman of the Democratic National Committee this year.

``If we send a message . . . that we elected a chair . . . with the support of organized labor -- have we learned anything?'' Ms. Pelosi asked. ``Republicans can use this to the hilt. It's yesterday. It's not the message of tomorrow.''

It turns out, however, that Kirk is also leery of labor. He has made it clear to union leaders that he'd like them to play a much smaller role in party affairs and be decidedly less aggressive and open in their support of Democrats. Mr. Kirk, for instance, recently asked the AFL-CIO to refrain from endorsing a candidate in the party's 1988 presidential primaries.

It's part of an attempt to shift the Democratic Party away from ``special interests'' and toward corporate interests, which provide ever-increasing amounts of its operating funds, and the largely nonunion, largely white-collar mass of people known affectionately by market researchers and Republican vote-seekers as ``the upwardly mobile.''

Those generally conservative people are predominant among the 50 percent or so of the citizenry that polls show as opposed to unions. Like the Democrats who are now seeking their support, they view unions as ``special interests'' known collectively -- and derisively -- as ``Big Labor.''

It doesn't seem to matter that what unions win in benefit levels sets the standard for the pay and conditions of everyone, white and blue collar alike, union and nonunion, ``upwardly mobile'' or otherwise.

What matters is that Reagan won the last presidential election and Mondale lost -- and that 47 percent of the country's union members voted for Reagan.

It's nevertheless clear that the AFL-CIO provided the Democrats with far more campaign workers and far more campaign dollars than did any other group, and that probably no other group could ever provide as much actual help.

It was precisely those efforts that, although not successful for Mondale, made extremely clear why it's nonsense for the Democrats to back away from labor. For the AFL-CIO won -- and won big -- in its other campaigning, that on behalf of hundreds of Democrats seeking hundreds of other offices and on behalf of hundreds of state and local ballot measures.

The AFL-CIO's election score card was far more impressive, certainly, than that of any other organization. It showed that 250 of the 397 candidates elected to House and Senate seats had been endorsed by the labor federation's Committee on Political Education. That's a score of more than 63 percent for COPE, not counting the victories of half the 10 gubernatorial candidates the AFL-CIO also had endorsed, and its numerous victories in other state and local races, particularly in populous and influential industrial states.

Naturally it's very important for unions to do well in the presidential race. But it's at least as important that they do well in their campaigning for other candidates and for ballot measures that directly affect union members and their natural allies.

Labor, after all, gets much of what it wants through the actions of state and federal lawmakers. That's extremely important to most people, union members or not, since the AFL-CIO has long been the greatest force behind the enactment of major social legislation. That obviously should be extremely important to the leaders of the Democratic Party, too, and it almost always has been.

At least, until now.

Dick Meister has covered labor and politics for the past 25 years as a newspaper and broadcast reporter and editor.

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