Outside the United Auto Workers Local 599 headquarters here, there are signs of trouble for Al Gore - brightly colored election signs.
Planted on tidily cut grass, facing the town's massive and mostly shut-down General Motors plant, they read, "Ken Hardin, Democrat for Drain Commissioner." Or, "Reelect Arthur Busch, Prosecutor, Democrat."
The trouble with these signs is that they're all about local races. And they reflect the fact that many union members - especially autoworkers, truckers, and steelworkers - are so viscerally opposed to Vice President Gore's pro-free-trade stance that they may turn away from the presidential contest and focus instead on local, state, or congressional races.
So even in a year in which the political muscle of unions is greater than it's been in a decade, in a reversal of tradition, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee may be forced to ride the coattails of local candidates. This could hinder his prospects in key Midwestern battleground states.
"If those unions decide they're really going to turn out the troops, it could have an important impact on the race," says Richard Hurd, a labor professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. If not, especially in a close contest, he says, Gore could be hamstrung in union-heavy states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Local races a priority
Inside the Flint union hall, Education Director Gene Ridley explains why for the first time this year, Local 599 endorsed candidates for local township elections. When members aren't passionate about the presidential race, he says, it's local races that "become more and more important to getting your voters out."
The most-important races this fall? "Our big concern is getting a majority back in the Michigan House and Senate," says Mr. Ridley. The state Supreme Court race is also key, as many union members feel they've been wronged by some recent rulings. "Oh, and that Drain Commissioner's race - that's a big one."
The only sign at the union hall that has anything to do with national politics blares, "No blank check for China," a reference to the now-passed bill to give China full, permanent trading status. Industrial unions opposed it, concerned that more of their manufacturing jobs will flow to Asia.
That bill - and Gore's support of it - riled union members. Many are still sore over his support for the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.
A recent Peter Hart Research poll shows 51 percent of union-household voters supporting Gore, while 38 percent back his Republican rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. In 1996, President Clinton got 64 percent of union-household votes.
The good news for Gore is that the 51 percent support has stayed steady - before and after the China trade issue. But as union households are split on Gore, so is national leadership.
Division in the ranks
The powerful AFL-CIO has endorsed him - and plans to spend its considerably strengthened political muscle helping him. Many other union groups, such as government employees, firefighters, and teachers, enthusiastically back him.
But the China vote is the reason the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters unions haven't endorsed Gore. After the China vote, UAW head Stephen Yokich accused Gore of "holding hands with the profiteers of the world."
His backing is especially important, observers say, because his members are concentrated in key states - and his organization is so disciplined. If Mr. Yokich gives the word, most members will vote for Gore.
Both the UAW and the Teamsters have flirted with endorsing Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who is against free trade. This has sent confusing signals to local leaders.
"We don't want to get out there in one certain direction," only to have the leadership change its mind later on, says Ridley in Flint. So for now, they're not focusing on the presidential race.
Some union leaders hint that pursuing congressional victories at the expense of the presidential race might be OK, as long as Democrats regain control of Congress. "That way, even if Bush wins, they can block him," says Wendell Young, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 1776 in Philadelphia.
But Gore is stumping hard for industrial-union votes. At a stop in Saginaw, Mich., last week, he answered a trade question, saying, "It's a challenging situation, but we would be worse off if we tried to wall ourselves off" from the world's trading markets. "If we do that, then we fall further behind." He also advocated more job-training programs to help out-of-work union members transition into the "knowledge economy."
Another way to persuade union voters to vote for Gore is to tell them about Mr. Bush's anti-union positions, which often provoke a dramatic reaction, says pollster Guy Molyneaux of Peter Hart Research. "A lot of union voters say, 'I didn't know that.... I can't vote for a guy like that.' "
Indeed, another sign at Flint's UAW union hall hints at how serious union members are about their jobs - and their opinions. It proclaims: "Only American-Union made automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles are allowed in this parking lot. Violators will be towed."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society