In 1988, the labor union I belonged to, the AWPPW (Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers), hoped Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt would win the Democratic nomination for president. Of all the candidates in the field (Al Gore, Paul Simon, Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis), Gephardt was judged to be the most labor friendly.
Not only was Gephardt clearly moving further and further to the political left (having started out as a centrist), his personal story was compelling. His modest net worth and natural humility made union folks believe that he was the one candidate who could genuinely empathize with the problems and challenges facing working people.
Yes, Michael Dukakis’ people were Greek immigrants, and, yes, Jesse Jackson had managed to rise above poverty and racial bigotry. But for working folks, Gephardt was the real deal; he didn’t just talk it, he walked it. He was brought up in a struggling, working class family in St. Louis, Missouri—his mother a housewife, his father a Teamster member who drove a milk truck.
But after getting off to a great start, winning the Iowa caucus and finishing second in the New Hampshire primary, Gephardt hit the wall. Like any front-runner in a national primary, he soon discovered he had a bulls-eye painted on his back. The other candidates attacked him mercilessly. Negative advertising, a lack of charisma, a shortage of money, and the withdrawal of the UAW’s earlier endorsement combined to sink him.
He ran again in 2004, but this time didn’t make it out of Iowa. He finished a distant fourth to John Kerry, John Edwards and Howard Dean, and withdrew the next day. By 2004, he was one of organized labor’s staunchest and most vocal supporters, having gone on record as opposing Clinton’s NAFTA agreement and criticizing as potentially catastrophic the notion of so-called “free trade.”
Gephardt boldly predicted that corporate America’s wildly enthusiastic embrace of “globalization” was a glorified scam, one that would result in a catastrophic loss of jobs at home as well as a huge windfall for the corporations, both here and abroad. Instead of the people benefiting, it would be the oligarchies who profited. He couldn’t have been more right.
In 2004, organized labor was once again split on whom to support. While the eastern, Ivy League-bred and New Age “techie,” Howard Dean, was seen as the face of Labor Future, Gephardt, the stolid and dependable choice of America’s traditional “smoke stack” unions, was seen as the face of Labor Past. Being depicted as superannuated didn’t help. Still, that any big-time union would choose a Johnny-come-lately like Dean—or a silver-tongued pretty boy like John Edwards—over himself was a body blow to Gephardt.
According to union insiders, despite the clear evidence that unions were doing pretty much what they’ve always done—going their separate ways for God knows what reasons, and backing opposing candidates—Gephardt nonetheless believed he had the endorsement of the AFL-CIO in his pocket.
Reportedly, when Gephardt didn’t get that endorsement (the House of Labor dragged its feet until the last minute, announcing that it wouldn’t commit until later in the primary, eventually throwing in with John Kerry), he was devastated. He went into a monumental funk, drenched in disillusionment and self-pity. And that was that.
So what does a labor union supporter and former 14-term congressman do after abandoning all hope of becoming president? Does he hook up with a union and use his connections to further the cause? Does he put his Northwestern University bachelor’s degree and University of Michigan law degree to use by doing public interest work? Does he teach, write books and go on the lecture circuit, extolling the virtues of America’s workers?
No. He turns his back on what he formerly stood for and goes for the easy money. He places his snout in the trough right next to the other guys. Gephardt becomes a lobbyist. Not only a lobbyist, but a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs.
This former critic of Wall Street is now a booster of Wall Street. With his knowledge and connections, there were a dozen ways Gephardt could have helped the labor movement. He could have made a difference. Instead, by defecting, he defiled his legacy and further fanned the flames of cynicism.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at email@example.com