Big Labor: what its seal of approval means

Howard Dean gets endorsements from two key unions, cementing his position as front-runner and hurting Gephardt.

Howard Dean's expected endorsement Wednesday by two large and politically influential unions - the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) - will give the former Vermont governor added organizational support and a more diverse look to his campaign.

More important, it lends the anti-establishment candidate his first significant stamp of approval from the Democratic establishment - which could make it a pivotal moment in the race.

Certainly, labor has proven a decisive force in past Democratic primaries. The two times the AFL-CIO has endorsed a candidate, in 2000 and 1984, it helped Al Gore and Walter Mondale crush challenges from Bill Bradley and Gary Hart. In other years, individual unions breaking from the pack have played kingmaker - as when

AFSCME expressed early support for Bill Clinton in 1992.

This cycle, Dr. Dean's strongest challenger may turn out to be the candidate with the most overall labor support: Rep. Richard Gephardt, who currently claims 20 union endorsements to Dean's three. In the nation's first caucus state of Iowa, the estimated 17,000 AFSCME and SEIU members supporting Dean will face off against the 60,000 or so other union members supporting Mr. Gephardt.

Yet experts note that the SEIU and AFSCME are also among the largest and most politically sophisticated unions in the country, giving their endorsements additional weight - even as they effectively deny Gephardt the overall AFL-CIO nod.

Moreover, while organized labor represents the bulk of Gephardt's support, Dean's union backing is more of a powerful complement, adding depth and experience to an already strong, though less traditional, organization. Coming on the heels of Dean's announcement that he will not take federal campaign matching funds, the endorsements will likely give his campaign even more momentum, and further solidify his front-runner status.

"These endorsements are enormously important for Howard Dean," says David Kusnet, a former Clinton speechwriter and former AFSCME official. "Dean has so much support from other sources, that for him also to be having labor support gives him a very broad base."

Padoxically, although union membership has been declining in recent years, labor's clout at the ballot box has grown, as it has come to represent a larger share of the participating electorate. In the 2000 general election, 26 percent of all voters came from union households, up from 19 percent in 1992 - a turnout that helped Gore win key Rust Belt states such as Michigan, as well as the overall popular vote. Experts trace labor's increased political participation in part to a change in leadership - namely, John Sweeney's becoming head of the AFL-CIO in 1995 - and partly to a new sense of urgency after the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress.

"You could trace a real order-of-magnitude improvement in labor's [political] skills and effectiveness in reaction to Republicans gaining the House in 1994," says Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California at Berkeley.

In Democratic primary contests, where the overall rate of participation is typically far lower than in general elections, labor's ability to turn out members gives it even greater sway. In the Iowa caucuses, for example, typically one out of every three participants comes from a union household. And unions are likely to play a big role in other early primary states, such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and, to a lesser extent, New Hampshire. For Dean, this could prove a potent source of strength, even if he falters in the less union-dominated states in the South and Southwest.

Labor's clout in the primary process has been reflected in some of the candidates' stances. On trade, Dean, along with Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, has modified his past support for free trade to include provisions for fair labor and environmental standards. All the candidates scrambled to release major healthcare plans early on - an issue that the SEIU, in particular, listed as a top priority.

Indeed, many observers credit Dean's healthcare plan, and his status as a doctor, with attracting the SEIU, which represents many workers in the healthcare industry.

But Dean's early opposition to the Iraq war may also have played a part. One of the largest SEIU affiliates, local 1199 in New York, has long ties to the peace movement going to the 1960s, and many members have opposed the Iraq conflict.

In the case of AFSCME, Dean's positions may have been of less consequence than his political strengths. President Gerald McEntee made clear early on that he was looking for a winner, and was reported at different times to be considering backing either Senator Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Observers say McEntee's choice of Dean was likely influenced by the former governor's record fundraising - as well as by Dean's unusual ability to draw potential new voters into the process.

"Most people would acknowledge that when the day is over, whoever the Democratic nominee is is going to have the base of the party," says Victor Kamber, a Democratic consultant with labor ties. "So the question is who can attract new people."

The importance of 'a good organizer'

Above all, unions "respect a good organizer," which Dean clearly is, says Mr. Kusnet. Combining the Dean campaign's ability to mobilize young people and others on the Internet with labor's more traditional organizational techniques could be formidable. Kusnet also notes a stylistic and rhetorical fit between Dean and the two unions, which represent a growing segment in the labor movement. Dean's tendency to say things like: "You can make a change in your life; I can't do it for you," mirrors the rhetoric of "a good young organizer," says Kusnet; Gephardt offers "an older generation of labor rhetoric."

To some extent, the unions backing Dean versus Gephardt reflect a split within the labor community between service and public-sector employees and old-line industrial workers. Yet experts say that surface split masks a deeper complexity, since individual unions increasingly represent varying sectors, anyway - with Teamsters, for example, as likely to work in the service economy as to drive trucks.

Still, Gephardt has managed to draw some unions into the process that have been less politically active in recent years, and he has even won the support of some that don't always vote Democratic, like the Teamsters. Analysts say this could wind up helping the eventual nominee, regardless of who wins, since those unions are now vested in the process and are likely to be focused on beating President Bush.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.