While unions are running against a record of decreased membership and past defections to GOP candidates, they are counting on workers to bring home the ballots for Michael Dukakis this November. The endorsement of Massachusetts Governor Dukakis by the 13-million-member AFL-CIO yesterday, highlights the otherwise low-profile efforts being made by labor and the Democrats to get out the union vote, a switch from 1984.
``Compared to 1980 or 1984, 1988 is a year when the labor vote is much more likely to come home to the Democratic Party,'' said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, president of the Garin-Hart Strategic Research Group.
Mr. Garin says union support for ``fair trade,'' an increased minimum wage, and plant-closing legislation should draw more workers to the union fold, overshadowing perceptions of labor as a special-interest group that may have turned away voters in past years.
At that time, the AFL-CIO endorsed long-time labor favorite Walter Mondale prior to the Democratic convention, leaving him tagged by primary opponents as a special-interest candidate.
Calling such Democratic union endorsements a ``dog-bites-man'' story, Bush campaign spokesman Mark Goodin said Republicans count on a carry-over of Ronald Reagan's appeal to working voters, based on the millions of new jobs created under the Reagan administration.
This time around, in a close election race, pollster Garin says union organizations may prove critical in edging large states with important blocs of electoral votes into the Democratic column.
A record number of union members were delegates at the Democratic convention last month in Atlanta, indicating strong connection between Dukakis and labor forces.
``I think we've got a pretty good campaign ahead,'' said Lorrie McHugh, spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO.
But organized labor is generally a less significant part of the voting force than it was a decade ago. In 1975, union members constituted about 29 percent of non-agricultural wage and salary workers. By last year, that figure had dropped to an estimated 17 percent.
And the personal appeal of either George Bush or Michael Dukakis to such voters remains a question mark.
Mr. Bush may not have Reagan's personal appeal to workers, but Republicans hope his stand on social and defense issues as well as the economy may appeal to white, blue collar voters.
Dukakis, meanwhile, was not a clear favorite of organized labor during the primaries, as was Mondale in 1984, but is supporting the issues that labor leaders advocate.
Back in 1984, despite the AFL-CIO's all-out effort to elect Mondale, members of union households voted about 53 percent for the Democrat, still significantly better than his 41 percent total showing.
Everett C. Ladd, director of the Roper Center for Political Opinion Research, sees about the same proportion this year.
``If you get an election close enough, almost any conceivable group can make a difference in the outcome,'' he says.
Garin sees the Democratic share of union votes running 10 to 15 points ahead of the total, larger Democratic share of November's votes.
The nation's largest union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which supported the Reagan-Bush ticket in 1980 and 1984 but now is the object of Justice Department efforts to place it in trusteeship, rejoined the AFL-CIO last year.
However, Massachusetts-based Teamsters president William McCarthy supported a Republican against Dukakis' gubernatorial efforts in the past.