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Despite a dip in labor’s national membership rolls and a significant decline in overall influence, make no mistake about it: The AFL-CIO is going to play an important part in the outcome of the 2008 election. That $300 million which the House of Labor is expected to spend between now and November will definitely make a difference.
Still, when the AFL-CIO formally announced on Friday, June 27, that it had voted to endorse Barack Obama for president, the announcement elicited a collective yawn from union members and political observers across the country. The endorsement was resoundingly anti-climatic. In the view of practically everyone, the AFL-CIO had no choice but to endorse Obama. Obama is a Democrat. Obama is the Party’s nominee. The AFL-CIO always endorses the Democratic nominee. Simple as that.
Actually, there was a choice. The other option was for the AFL-CIO to hold out—to pretend to be officially “neutral” and endorse neither candidate, in the hope that their “indecision” would pressure the Democrats to work that much harder on their labor agenda in order to woo labor to their side. But that flimsy strategy had no realistic chance of working.
Alas, 75 years of experience has taught organized labor that playing hard to get yields pretty much the same results as putting out on the first date. Sadly, it’s the nature of the relationship. Whether or not the unions assume the role of slutty debutante or , they get only what their Democratic benefactors are willing to give them, no more and no less.
However, had this opportunity occurred during the primaries, when Senators Clinton and Obama were still locked in a tight race, or had it been a labor group other than the AFL-CIO (say the Teamsters), it might have been a different story. Union endorsements have an uneven history. You never know how effective they will be, how many votes they will get, or if they’re going to turn around and bite you.
In 1980, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, with Frank Fitzsimmons (Jimmy Hoffa’s successor) as their president, stunned everyone by officially endorsing Ronald Reagan. At the time the Teamsters were, by far, the biggest union in America, and their rough-and-ready members were famous for being fiercely loyal to their leadership. To a Teamie truck driver, an official endorsement from the boys upstairs really meant something.
The union’s embrace of Reagan over Jimmy Carter remained a puzzle until it was revealed, years later, that Fitzsimmons, Jackie Presser (a future Teamster president), and Bill “Big Bill” Presser (a Teamster official and Jackie’s dad), had been facing a multitude of criminal charges, and that, in 1972, in order to save their skins, the three men went to work for the federal government as FBI informants.
Moreover, during the 1980 campaign, Reagan and Jackie Presser not only struck up a friendship, but Presser was later named “labor advisor” to Reagan’s transition team. It was also reported that Presser, who became Teamster president in 1983, held a grudge against Carter for his Justice Department’s aggressive pursuit of several Cleveland mafia figures with whom Presser had dealings. In other words, it was a mess.
Or take the 2004 primary election. Prior to the ’04 Iowa caucus, the estimable SEIU (Service Employees International Union) had snubbed organized labor’s traditional and long-time ally, Richard Gephardt, and come out in favor of the Party’s dark horse candidate, Howard Dean.
So what happened? Dean still lost, and Gephardt, who, even without the SEIU’s support, had the backing of a dozen big-time industrial unions, wound up finishing a distant third. He dropped out of the race a day later. And true to form, the AFL-CIO remained neutral until well after John Kerry had the nomination wrapped up, then officially endorsed him.
Group endorsements—from any group—are risky. What leadership fails to realize is that people don’t always appreciate being “told” whom to vote for. People don’t like feeling that they’re being manipulated or taken for granted or being treated like push-button political entities rather than living, thinking human beings. Sure, it’s helpful for the International union to come out with a slate of political candidates it endorses, so long as they realize that it risks alienating the very constituency it seeks to influence.
While union officials still bitterly recall (to the point of almost becoming ill) seeing all those “Reagan-Bush ‘84” bumper stickers plastered on cars in union parking lots, they tend to forget what pollsters already know by heart—i.e., that voters are wildly unpredictable. People vote the way they do for all sorts of reasons, and, like it or not, union membership doesn’t always guarantee a vote for a pro-labor candidate.
Union members aren’t sheep or one-trick ponies who join in lockstep and cast their votes as commanded. In fact, as nutty as this sounds, some union people consider it a point of honor to vote the exact opposite way they’re advised to by their parent union.
That said, labor’s influence in this election is going to be huge. Big Labor is primed and ready. Between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, there will be 15 million union members bombarded with pro-Obama literature, and hundreds of millions of dollars spent in the media. The two coalitions will not only assure that Obama beats McCain in the fall, they will help Democrats win congressional and senate seats across the country.
Once again, the AFL-CIO will step up to the plate. Once again, the Democrats will have labor to thank for getting elected. Once again, encouraging promises will be made. And once again, as disappointment is piled upon disappointment, organized labor will wrack its brain trying to come with yet another strategy for getting the Democrats to honor their commitments.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org