Steve Rosenthal, political director of the AFL-CIO, is perhaps the only one of America's thousands of political strategists who genuinely has armies to deploy. And as Rosenthal sees it, the time to elect Al Gore is now. "The campaign is going to be won or lost between now and August, not after Labor Day," he told me on a mid-March morning. "The most important thing we can do over the next five months is to reach the quarter of the electorate that comes from union households, to let them know that Bush has opposed raising the minimum wage, that he supports anti-union 'right to work' legislation federally as well as in the states. We have a sustained message; we'll be leafleting in the work sites every month, phoning, mailing... ."
The AFL-CIO long ago targeted key states for this year's general election; the budgets and coordinators have been in place for many months now. Like his fellow strategists, Rosenthal thinks the presidential contest is likely to be decided in a belt of old-line industrial states reaching from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri. Unlike his fellow strategists, he knows his organization can call on thousands of activists in those states to spread the word for Gore in the weeks ahead.
Or can it?
We Love Him, We Love Him Not
Labor's twin political powerhouses in the Jersey City-to-Kansas City belt are the public sector unions, like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the teachers' unions, and the industrial unions, such as the United Steelworkers, the United Auto Workers (UAW), and the Teamsters. The only two major federation unions that have yet to endorse Gore, though, are the UAW and the Teamsters, for whom Gore's continuing allegiance to free trade remains a major stumbling block. For the past half-year, Gore has been trying to square a circle on trade--maintaining his active support for free trade generally and China's entry into the World Trade Organization in particular, while suggesting at the same time that the trade policy of a Gore administration would be more labor-friendly than that of the Clinton White House. Last October, at the AFL-CIO's national convention (which, not coincidentally, endorsed him for president), the vice president vowed that any Gore trade treaties would enshrine worker rights and environmental standards as central provisions. This past February, he told some of the union presidents gathered for the federation's executive council meeting in New Orleans that he'd revisit the terms of the China accord if it failed to pass in the current congressional session, demanding greater labor safeguards in its second incarnation. The following day, taken to the woodshed by the Clinton White House, he issued a clarification of his position, insisting he'd stick with the existing language of the proposed accord.
In the rarified world of the unions' Washington-based political and legislative operatives, however, Gore's New Orleans nod toward labor--faint, qualified, and open to interpretation though it may have been--was appreciated. After all, you could hardly expect him to break publicly with either Clinton or corporate America on China. "I appreciate his creating the ambiguity," one senior labor functionary told me one Tuesday in March.
By the following day, however, ambiguity had turned to perfidy in the minds of even the most jaded of union operatives. On Wednesday, March 15, Gore told The Wall Street Journal that he would not renegotiate the China pact, that free trade was in fact the way to ensure the spread of human rights, and that when he'd said that trade accords needed to have labor and environmental standards, he hadn't meant that violations of those standards would necessarily trigger sanctions. "We will have a hard enough time gaining acceptance of the principle [of fast track] without specifying in detail, in advance, exactly how the principle is embodied in agreements," he said. It is possible, he continued, that violations could result in the kinds of fines called for by the side agreements in NAFTA.
The side agreements in NAFTA?! For labor, these were the very emblem of faithless window dressing. What was Gore thinking? Here a vast political program was ready to roll, in the very states he needed most, requiring the passionate engagement of the UAW and the Steelworkers and the Teamsters if it was really going to work--and Gore was suggesting that his new world-trade order would incorporate the very features of the existing world-trade order that were most anathema to the unions. The morning the interview appeared, union officials were shouting over the phone lines, both to Gore's campaign and to one another--and, in the latter case, posing one basic question (rhetorical in some instances, literal in others): Why did we endorse this guy? Or, in the case of Auto and the Teamsters, how does he think we can endorse him now?
Gore may have learned a lot from Bill Clinton, but he doesn't seem to have picked up the president's knack for triangulation. Confronted with conflicting positions that divide New Democrats from Old, the vice president at times seems unable to fuse the elements of both into a distinct third way, and instead shuttles back and forth between contradictory postures. The split in Gore, moreover, is mirrored by a split in his campaign. Intellectually--as personified by his policy operatives Elaine Kamarck, Bruce Reed, and William Galston--his campaign is New Democrat all the way. Politically--as personified by his campaign manager Donna Brazile--his campaign is inclined toward and even invested in the core Democratic constituency groups [see Nicholas Confessore, "The Odd Couple," page 23].
If triangulation seems harder for the veep than for the pres, it may be because Gore is more deeply rooted than Clinton in both sides of the divide. Intellectually a creature of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), Gore is at the same time politically a creature of the Beltway Democratic Party, which first and foremost means labor.
A Pro-Labor New Democrat?
Throughout the Clinton presidency, Gore has frequently played a center-right role on matters of economic policy. As is well-known, he counseled Clinton in 1996 to sign the Republican bill ending welfare. He was also a deficit hawk right from the start, joining Leon Panetta and Alice Rivlin as among the most ardent advocates of cutting the deficit during the 1993 debate that defined the direction of the incoming administration. He is now, apparently, a debt-retirement hawk as well, telling The Wall Street Journal in a January interview that the federal budget should stay in balance even during a recession, that "just as a corporation has to cut expenses as revenues fall off ... [a downturn] should be viewed as an opportunity to push that change [eliminating middle managers from the government] further before any other options are considered." (This repudiation of Keynesianism was too much even for John McCain to bear; told of Gore's comments, he responded, "One of the options to stimulate the economy is to make investments, and that may entail deficit spending.") On macroeconomics, Gore seems to have moved beyond the fiscal austerity of such DLC paladins as Al From, and not because there's any notable political pressure in the land for debt retirement as the north star of public policy. Left to his own devices, Gore is becoming our first Andrew Mellon Democrat.
Gore was hardly a tribune for labor issues either in the early years of the Clinton White House. With Thomas "Mack" McLarty, he was a champion of extending NAFTA to all of Latin America. Depending on whom you talk to, he was either an outright opponent or a lukewarm advocate of the minimum wage hike of 1996 when it first surfaced in White House deliberations in 1995. "He certainly wasn't a supporter of the confrontational tactics of [senators Edward] Kennedy and [Tom] Daschle [who were attaching it as an amendment to a succession of bills to embarrass the Republicans]," one former White House official recalls. "Early in '95, Gore was a Morrisite, looking to co-opt Republicans rather than confront them. He also considered jettisoning Davis-Bacon [the 1931 act mandating prevailing union wages on federal construction projects] and other labor laws as part of his reinventing government projects." Indeed, Gore's policy people in the Clinton White House--chiefly, Kamarck and Reed, who now are the policy people on his campaign and would probably be the chief domestic policy people in the Gore White House--were the administration's leading apostles for downsizing the government, privatizing its functions, and slashing the deficit, and among its champions of free trade.
"Gore is even more of a wonk than Clinton is," says one leading labor policy staffer based in Washington, "and he's a DLC True Believer. Clinton looks at policy and thinks about how to move it politically; Gore is more into the mechanics of policy as such. I'm concerned that he may really want to get rid of lots of federal employees on his watch."
And yet, Gore was the unions' go-to guy in the White House. "Whenever the Clinton administration got really bad on specific union issues," says one former AFL-CIO official, "you went to Gore. He had a political sense of the need to accommodate labor. He has a better sense of the institutional relationship of labor to the Democratic Party than Clinton's ever had."
Gore spent the first six years of his vice presidency assuming that his most likely primary opponent in 2000 would be Dick Gephardt, whose claim on labor's allegiance might well have trumped his own. Moreover, it was apparent by the time of the 1996 election, even more apparent by the time of labor's victory in the 1997 fast track fight, and more apparent yet by the time of labor's victory in the 1998 battle over California's initiative curtailing union political programs, that the value of an AFL-CIO endorsement was rising like Internet stock. Ingratiating himself to the unions became a matter of utmost urgency.
At the most basic, if not quite substantial, level, that meant schmoozing the union presidents, inviting them over to the White House and to a range of functions. More seriously, it meant that when pro-union positions were to be announced--such as the 1995 executive order prohibiting government contractors from hiring striker replacements--it would be Gore who announced them.
Even more seriously, it meant that when a union needed help, in public policy or in the brave new world of organizing, Gore, like Tom Joad, would be there. He campaigned against California's Proposition 226, the initiative that would have defunded unions' political programs, when it was trailing by a 70-to-21 percent margin; he helped raise money for the opposition effort. When the Los Angeles County health system was facing bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, he answered the pleas of SEIU (California's main public sector union) to stop the federal interagency squabbling that was blocking a solution to the problem. ("It was more challenging to get cooperation between the Department of Labor and Health and Human Services than between the Serbs and the Croats," one SEIU official recalled, "and Gore did it.") When L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who is vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, was reluctant to establish the public authority required to grant collective bargaining rights to L.A.'s 74,000 home care workers--a campaign SEIU had been working on for 12 years--Gore called Molina at least twice to suggest she might rethink her position. (She did.) Gore even phoned major property-owner associates who owned buildings where janitors were attempting to win union recognition (another SEIU effort), and suggested he'd help facilitate negotiations.
In the admiring words of SEIU President Andy Stern, "On things that elected officials are involved in themselves, such as recognition for home care workers or collective bargaining in Puerto Rico, or on other issues where he knew a real estate owner was involved in a dispute, he often called and encouraged them to meet and find common ground."
Gore's activism wasn't confined to the SEIU. He leaned on the Defense Department to break off its contract with Avondale Shipyards, the New Orleans facility that refused for half a decade to negotiate with the union its workers had voted in. He intervened to be sure that federal regulations protected Texas public employees from the specter of privatization at the hands of the state's new Republican governor. As one labor leader puts it, "We don't hesitate to ask Gore for lots of things. He's walked picket lines for us, intervened in organizing drives; he's a lot more of a known quantity, certainly, than Clinton was in '92."
So has labor endorsed Dr. Jekyll simply by refusing to contemplate Mr. Hyde? Several senior union policy staffers acknowledge that Gore's budgetary views haven't been the object of much contemplation. "Unfortunately," says one, "I don't think the vice president is at all singular as to his macroeconomics, and I don't think either he or we have made a big deal of it during the campaign." Says another, "Gore is running to the right of where Clinton has governed on economics, which sure leaves open the question of what he'd do as president if a recession struck. But there's been very little discussion of that. That's probably a mistake."
More important, though, even Gore's harsher critics in labor acknowledge that in one very significant particular, Gore has managed to fuse policy and politics in a distinctly pro-union way. In what is probably the most surprising twist of his career, Al Gore over the past half-decade has become a real champion of workers' right to unionize.
The change here began not with Gore but with John Sweeney and his own reinvention of the labor movement. Unions' involvement in politics, said Sweeney from the first day he became AFL-CIO president, was chiefly a means to help organizing drives, to create a better climate for the movement to reverse the decline of four decades. Elected officials who got labor support would in turn be expected to support unions in struggle. The unspoken corollary was that the person who got labor's support for president would be expected to support unions in struggle more than anyone else.
And so the federation began to bring workers who'd been fired for daring to organize, harassed by supervisors, or denied basic rights in the workplace, and took them around to meet with the Democratic congressional delegation or with candidates in their own states. And wherever Gore went to talk to a union, the rule was, have him meet with the workers. Let him see what they're going through.
"I have always believed that the American people, if they just heard what workers have to go through to win a voice in their workplace, wouldn't stand for it," says John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, who, with Stern, is one of the small number of organizing geniuses of the Sweeney era. "Anyone would be moved by their stories," Wilhelm continues. "Gore has been, and it shows. I give a lot of credit to the federation, which has arranged for him to meet with workers involved in difficult struggles everywhere he goes. And with respect to the overriding issue for American labor, the right to organize, Al Gore is better than any candidate I can remember."
In his speeches to unions, Gore now routinely brings to the podium the workers he's met and tells their stories. He goes on to say that organizing is a basic American right and that as president he'd strengthen it--though he gets no more specific than to say he'd favor increasing the penalties on employers who find it cheaper to violate the terms of the National Labor Relations Act than to grant their workers a raise. Gore even goes so far as to discuss the right to unionize in speeches delivered to groups other than unions, though that is still more the exception than the norm.
Union leaders tend to be among the less credulous of political observers, but it's hard to find one who isn't at some level moved by the vice president's performances on behalf of unionization. "On this issue, the overriding issue, Gore is almost a better candidate than we have a right to expect, given the low level of unionization in the U.S.," says Wilhelm. Many see Gore's commitment to unionization as balancing off his other flaws. "If he doesn't do what he said at L.A. and New Orleans that he'd do on trade, the only way he can escape with his head, as far as unions are concerned, is if he really does something on the right to organize," one union political official says. "Even if we don't have the votes in Congress to strengthen labor law, he could still use the bully pulpit and help create the climate for that change; he could highlight in his State of the Union the contributions that unions make to the nation."
Still, other union officials contend that Gore's education on the plight of working people has given him a more nuanced, less DLCesque view of the economy. As AFL-CIO Policy Director David Smith sees it, "This is somebody who gets the core concern that unionized manufacturing jobs contribute in a special way to building an inclusive, broadly middle-class economy, somebody who doesn't settle for the standard rhetoric of creative destruction, who cares if there are losers as well as winners in economic change. The vice president understands it's not all Cisco Systems out there in the new economy, and that leads him to two conclusions that our folks respond positively to: First, making the new economy work in the service sector means that trade unions and worker rights and collective action are all necessary, and second, the notion that the old economy is a relic we'd be better off without is simply not true."
Smith's view as to the extent of Gore's conversion is not universally held in labor's high councils--anyway, it certainly wasn't universally held two days after Smith and I spoke, which was the day that Gore rethought trade yet again in The Wall Street Journal. People who worked with Gore in the administration differ on Gore's about-face on labor issues as well. "I believe Gore's conversion on labor questions is relatively sincere," one former high-ranking administration official says, "but it's a sincerity born of necessity. He was suspicious of labor; they hated him; but over time, they came to see that they needed each other--an archetypal co-dependent relationship."
Moreover, Sweeney's turn to organizing--and to Gore-- coincided with the ascent of the Gingrichites on the Hill. Inescapably, Gore the cutter of government became Gore the defender of the New Deal legacy against those wacky Republicans. The repositioning was by no means complete, but where Gore did "stay and fight," the affected unions certainly appreciated it. "In 1995 it would have been very easy to walk away from Medicaid," says SEIU's Stern. "But when the budget fight was going on, Gore was very clear on the need to maintain public health care. Within the administration, he was the one who drew the line on Medicaid."
Gore the cutter didn't vanish altogether, however. In the course of his efforts to downsize the government, he negotiated some losses-by-attrition with Treasury employees and some AFSCME units. And not all federal employee unionists have been brimming with cheer over labor's support for Gore. The leadership of the American Federation of Government Employees--the largest union of federal workers--is in trouble with its members for its Gore endorsement, and the federal employee affiliate within SEIU (a small part of the international) has declined to endorse Gore at all.
Which does raise the question of whether any unions have reached discreet agreements with the veep about policy and personnel matters that would most impact them in a Gore administration. AFSCME would be well advised to reach some quiet understanding about privatization or the lack thereof. Plainly, it is in the interests of the building trades to win an assurance that no one will go after Davis-Bacon, which protects union wages in government construction contracts. SEIU, which is also the nation's largest union of health care workers, would like a friendly Health and Human Services secretary. And the nation's manufacturing unions would like at minimum to return to a state of watchful ambiguity, rather than profound depression, on matters of trade.
The best time to have reached these understandings, however, was before the federation endorsement last October--a point that a number of international presidents raised at that time. Instead, the endorsement was pushed through for a variety of reasons: Of the two Democratic candidates, labor clearly owed Gore more than it owed Bradley; given the then-shaky state of the Gore campaign, the veep could ill afford to have the AFL-CIO delay its decision; and finally, Sweeney told his fellow presidents that this was the time for labor to act together. In the end, it was the respect that Sweeney's colleagues accorded him--more than their regard for Gore--that proved decisive. "I did this for John," one international president told me at the time.
Labor then proceeded to play an absolutely decisive role in Gore's two-state battle for the nomination. Their support in Iowa was overwhelming but unsurprising. In New Hampshire, labor produced a good half of Gore's volunteers, and union households gave Gore 62 percent of their vote, while his overall margin of victory over Bill Bradley hovered at 4 percent. Just to ice the victory, labor did significant work in California, Ohio, and New York for the March 7 primaries. Gore's debt to labor is huge, but today, as before the AFL-CIO endorsement, there's little evidence that unions have struck any special understandings with Gore on matters of policy or personnel. "A lot of unions don't bargain in this kind of context the way we do with employers," says one international's longtime lobbyist.
In the end, unions are counting on being able to do business with the political, not the intellectual, Al Gore. "He's not an insulated or isolated elected official," says Stern. "A lot of his advisers don't share our members' thinking, but I don't think that prevents him from hearing other points of view." By several accounts, AFSCME President Jerry McEntee and SEIU's Stern have easy access to Gore, as, of course, does Sweeney.
"Gore understands politics the way many labor leaders do," says one Washington-based political consultant who works with a number of unions and Democratic elected officials. "Their world is one where one performs favors and expects favors in return. Gore will infuriate labor periodically, and they know what those issues will be. But labor has a sense this guy will play ball with them."
Finally, it's important to remember that the precipitating cause of the successful Sweeney insurgency of 1995 was the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. Four decades of declining representation in the work force was a slow rolling catastrophe, but did not in itself provoke the revolution. The loss of the House was what brought the Kirkland years to an abrupt halt.
The answer to the question of Why Gore?, then, has little to do with Gore at all. Congress is still in Republican hands, and labor simply cannot afford to risk having a Republican--a union-busting Texas Republican at that--in the White House. Last year was the first in 40 in which unions arrested their decline as a percentage of the work force (at 13.9 percent). Should that decline recommence, the unions don't have that much further down to go before they're simply out.
"This is all about beating Bush," the consultant says, "and Gore's particular positions, his strengths and weaknesses, are almost irrelevant to the calculations that went into the endorsement. It was less an assessment of Gore than something much more strategic." A former AFL-CIO senior staffer echoes this sentiment somewhat more pungently: "This isn't about what Gore can do for us," he says. "This is about, we're in a world of shit if we lose the White House and don't win back the House." ¤