FRESH from a rousing, sign-waving convention hall, where presidential candidate Bill Clinton has just delivered a major speech, Vito de Leonardis is upbeat.
Union teachers will support Mr. Clinton, he says. "They feel we have a chance this time."
Sandra Thompson, a fellow delegate here at the American Federation of Teachers convention, puts it another way: "Unions, anymore, are trying to pull together."
The mood in Pittsburgh reflects the broad sentiments among United States unions. The labor movement is having a semi-sweet election year.
For the first time in 12 years, union workers have a realistic shot at helping elect a Democrat to the White House. But it is not the Democrat that many unions wanted. The bitter realization is that organized labor is playing a diminished role in Democratic politics this year. Gone are the days of traditional Democrats like Walter Mondale. When he ran for president in 1984, reporters asked if he had a single policy difference with the AFL-CIO. Mr. Mondale couldn't think of any.
Clinton is different. He is not only more conservative on economic issues than most unions; he is not afraid to say so, labor observers say. Before the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, he promised to cut 100,000 federal jobs over eight years. That didn't affect the union directly; it does not represent federal workers. But it drew a worried letter from the American Federation of Government Employees, which does.
Here in Pittsburgh this week, Clinton acknowledged past differences with the American Federation of Teachers, which backed Clinton enthusiastically and early. "But you are going to know that every day I am going to get up with a burning desire to improve education in America," he said. Delegates cheered.
"I don't get any sense from the guy that he's anti-union," says Irving Bernstein, a respected labor historian and professor emeritus of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. "But he has made the calculation that when you're running for president, even as a Democrat, you don't have to pay special attention" to labor's issues.
If professional and white-collar unions have a few quibbles with Clinton, industrial unions are stuck with major policy differences: Clinton supports the North American Free Trade Agreement. Industrial unions do not. Clinton comes from a state with a "right-to-work" law (considered anti-union), and he has done little to change that. So does his running mate, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee. Unions want to abolish right-to-work provisions.
IT helps that Clinton backs other labor goals. He says he would sign the Family and Medical Leave Act, which mandates time off work for pregnancies and other family situations. He wants to rebalance the National Labor Relations Board, which unions say has tilted toward employers. Clinton favors government-sponsored health care. And he says he's ready to strike out federal language that allows right-to-work laws.
When Clinton agreed last spring to include worker and environmental provisions in any free-trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, industrial unions began to fall into line.
Labor still packs an electoral punch. It has a sophisticated system of contacting its members. It has substantial amounts of money. A recent report said that seven unions gave the Democratic National Committee $1.3 million in an 18-month period. At the Democratic National Convention last month, union members represented nearly one-fourth of the delegates.
But their numbers were down from 1988. Nationally, unions are dwindling. They represent only 16.1 percent of all employed workers - down from 20.1 percent in 1983.
For a while, the pending candidacy of Ross Perot attracted many unionists. When the International Brotherhood of Teamsters polled its members in early July, it found Mr. Perot running ahead of both candidates - 32 percent to 27 percent for Bush and 26 percent for Clinton.
When Perot decided not to run, union leaders and workers had no choice but to support Clinton, says Richard Hurd, director of labor studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
"He is the candidate," says Joe Day, an unemployed Teamster who now is a community organizer in Massachusetts. "I disagree with him on lots of things. [But] Democrats realize that this is their chance and they have to come together. If they don't, the whole country's in trouble."
Union workers not only want a Democrat in the White House, they fear that, if they don't get one, the country will slide into deep decline, says Ben Fischer, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Labor Studies.
"They all reflect a feeling that the stakes are very high. And that has to do primarily with the feeling that we are in big, big trouble."