Big labor is in decline in the United States - its membership at the lowest level in a half century, its national influence waning.
But none of this has devalued the worth of a presidential endorsement from the union movement. Both Bill Bradley and Al Gore are fighting for organized labor's approval as if it were the passkey of politics - and it may very well be.
In the primaries, where traditional constituencies count, unions can still mobilize millions of votes. Perhaps more important, the fight to capture labor's imprimatur has taken on unusual symbolic importance. Mr. Gore, who early in the campaign was expected to glide to the nomination, now finds himself in trouble - and any lost support adds to a visage of vincibility.
"If the unions don't fully back Gore, it shows his weakness," says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University here. "If just a few back Bradley, it could influence public opinion, other unions, and contributions."
Despite having shrunk a few sizes, big labor, along with minorities and women, still wields a coveted stamp of approval. Union members usually vote in large numbers in Democratic primaries. And while they make up only13 percent of the work force (down from 20 percent in 1983), they still number 16 million.
That's 16 million potential workers to man phone banks, walk door-to-door, attend political rallies, and get out the vote. When asked why the labor endorsement still mattered, AFL-CIO spokeswoman Deborah Dion says simply, "It's troops."
Just a few weeks ago, organized labor appeared destined to back the vice president. But like so many other assumptions in the Gore campaign, this too is no longer a given. Mr. Bradley, buoyed by his new standing, has persuaded key union leaders to press for a delay in the AFL-CIO's endorsement decision. The union umbrella organization is expected to take up the issue next week.
AFL-CIO president John Sweeney backs Gore, as do the state branches of the United Auto Workers and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The vice president just picked up the million-plus member American Federation of Teachers this week.
Still, Mr. Sweeney is in a difficult spot. If he pushes his organization toward a Gore endorsement now, he risks alienating members. Yet if he urges postponement - as the Teamsters, Service Employees, and Food Workers want - it's sure to be read as another setback for Gore.
Both campaigns are aggressively lobbying labor leaders. Yesterday, in a rare appearance before a group of Teamsters, President Clinton was expected to trumpet Gore. No sitting president has addressed the Teamsters since Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president was also scheduled to meet privately with Teamsters leader James Hoffa.
The Teamsters have been leaning toward Bradley. One reason: He's willing to put off opening the border to Mexican trucks, as called for under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Bradley was to give a major speech on work and family issues yesterday, emphasizing economic security, job skills, and day care.
The AFL-CIO ranks both candidates' lifetime voting records on labor issues about equally (Gore voted "right" 88 percent of the time, Bradley 86 percent). But labor is sharply critical of the candidates' support for NAFTA and free trade. "Both are bad on trade," says Ms. Dion.
One possible outcome is a Gore endorsement by the AFL-CIO, but some individual unions backing Bradley. Internal splits have happened before, with the Teamsters endorsing Ronald Reagan, a Republican, in 1980 and 1984, and George Bush in 1988.
"Labor is asking itself who is more electable. That's the issue at this point," says Alan Draper, a union expert at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.
Recent polling numbers offer clues as to why some unions want more time for the race to unfold before backing a particular candidate. In surveys, Bradley does about as well as Gore in a general election match-up against Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
If the Bradley camp strikes out with the union leadership, it says it will wage a vigorous grass-roots campaign. But if that's the case, it can expect to find another politician, Pat Buchanan, working the same soil. Mr. Buchanan's protectionist, populist message resonates with many blue-collar workers upset over the administration's free-trade policies.
"He's going to appeal to the rank and file," to coal miners and steel workers, says Roger Hartley, an analyst at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.
But others see Buchanan's appeal as limited to a few pockets of suffering in a prosperous economy. "Pat Buchanan is one of the great exaggerated stories so far," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "The more interesting competition is between Bradley and Gore."
Mr. Sabato sees Gore heading toward the Walter Mondale strategy of 1984. Mr. Mondale's popular appeal was not strong enough to capture the Democratic nomination. He had to rely on the Democratic establishment - including labor - to secure the nod.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society