Four years ago, organized labor auditioned for a major role in the Making of the President--and ended up being cast as a big loser in the politics of 1984.
Now, as the 1988 campaign gets underway, the unions are preparing to play a more modest role. And, partly because the movement's goals are more realistic, labor may find itself in the winner's circle this time around.
For the unions, 1988 maybe a better year than 1984, not only because of the lame-ducking of Ronald Reagan, but also because big business is replacing big government as the target of public anger, and the unions are displaying a new strategic shrewdness in their organizing, communications and political action.
This year, the unions are gearing up new efforts to stress family as well as workplace issues, communicate more effectively with their members, change their image in the mass media, and avoid conveying the impression of institutional arrogance they projected in 1984.
The Lessons of 1984
By this time in the 1984 race, labor had already done something virtually unprecedented: endorsed Walter Mondale for the Democratic presidential nomination before the first caucuses and primaries.
For labor's national leadership, there were many good reasons to endorse Mondale. As an activist in Minnesota's Democratic Farm Labor Party, a progressive senator and a respected vice president, Mondale had racked up a record of consistent support for labor and its causes. With the withdrawal of Sen. Edward Kennedy, Mondale had no serious rival for the support of most union leaders and activists. And, left to its own devices in 1972 and 1976, the Democratic nomination process had produced candidates viewed as inexperienced in national politics and indifferent to working people.
However, while amply justifiable, the Mondale endorsement may never have been successfully justified to the media, the electorate, or even to much of labor's rank and file. While not equalling Mondale's lifetime commitment, several of his rivals-- Gary Hart, John Glenn, and, certainly, Alan Cranston and Jesse Jackson--had pro-labor records and appealed to segments of labor's rank-and-file membership. Critics asked why the AFL-CIO and the powerful and unaffiliated National Education Association (NEA) had each endorsed Mondale before Democratic voters had the chance to cast their ballots--and in many cases, without even polling their own members.
Whatever the merits of the Mondale endorsement, its symbolism coincided with and contributed to the image problems that dogged his doomed campaign. Unfairly for a man whose career began in Minnesota's participatory politics, Mondale became typecast as the ultimate Washington insider. In the media and among much of the electorate, labor's endorsement of Mondale was seen not so much as a recognition of his accomplishments but as one more powerful national institution falling into line behind a political operator.
What began as an internal debate within the Democratic Party ultimately injured Mondale, the party, and the labor movement. First John Glenn and then Gary Hart attacked organized labor as a special interest and Mondale for accepting the AFL-CIO endorsement--rhetoric that was recycled by Reagan and the Republicans in the fall campaign.
Meanwhile, in the primaries and the general election, labor had a mixed record of delivering its own membership. In his upset victory in the New Hampshire primary, Hart carried union members by a margin estimated at seven-to-six--significantly less than his share of the entire electorate but a rebuff to a labor campaign in which more than 20,000 union members were contacted personally. Hart also carried the union vote in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and other strong union states and did surprisingly well among union members in California, Ohio and Indiana.
However, after the early primaries, labor's political operation rebounded, lacing into Hart on the relatively few issues where he parted company from the unions, including his support for decontrol of natural gas and his opposition to the rescue of Chrysler and trade protection for workers in the auto, steel and apparel industries. Together with Hart's being labelled as a "yuppie" candidate by Mondale and the media, labor's political effort succeeded in polarizing the Democratic electorate in favor of Mondale, with blue-collar workers and the poor supporting Mondale or Jackson, and the less numerous upper income voters favoring Hart.
Ironically, Mondale and the unions were less successful in introducing class conflict into the campaign against Reagan. The most optimistic union estimates showed Mondale capturing between 50 and 60 percent of the votes of union members and their families significantly less than successful Democratic candidates had won in the past and little more than George McGovern, Adlai Stevenson, and other losing Democrats not known for their appeal to working people.
So labor's 1984 effort went down in the history books as a failure.
Most of the blame for Mondale's lack of appeal to working Americans rests not with the labor movement but with the campaign itself. As John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union, explained in a post-election speech, the unions tried to sell Mondale to their members with the message that he supported full employment, tax justice and programs like Medicare and Social Security. That was Mondale's successful message in the primaries, but, in the general election he stressed the budget deficit, called for a tax increase that would hit the middle class as well as the wealthy, and refused to call for new jobs programs. In some ways, organized labor's active participation, despite the ultimate outcome, was not without important successes. Badly bruised after the unsuccessful PATCO strike and years of concessions at the bargaining table, defeats in Congress, and declines in its membership figures, organized labor had to do something highly visible to prove that it was still a force to be reckoned with on the national scene. The early and active support for Mondale may have been an effort to prove to the members and the media that the movement was still a movement. By proving it could help a candidate win the Democratic nomination after being one punch away from a knockout in the early primaries and by being attacked by its enemies as a powerful special interest-organized labor proved that it still had some of its fabled clout.
Just as important, the 1984 experience taught the unions new lessons on how to mobilize their own members. To old-line union leaders at the national and state levels, rallying the troops meant appealing to institutional loyalties fostered during the Great Depression and the organizing drives of the 1930s and 1940s.
Not surprisingly, this message had little appeal to a new generation of workers who had not experienced the struggles of a half century ago. As the campaign continued in Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and other industrial states, the unions learned to address their members as individuals and to explain why Mondale was better for steelworkers, auto workers, teachers and public employees.
While the unions learned a lesson about message, they mostly failed to learn a lesson about methods. Before the 1984 campaign got underway, several unions, most notably the Machinists, experimented with a new program called "one-to-one." This program trained shop stewards-the workers who represent their co-workers in their problems on the job and are most members' immediate link with the union-to discuss political as well as union issues with their co-workers. Conducted on an experimental basis in the paper-mill town of Berlin, New Hampshire, "one-to- one" produced a Mondale landslide of 60 percent in that community, while he lost the rest of the state by a comparable margin.
The reasons for the program's success were explained by Ed Draves, a union political operative who coordinated the effort in Berlin: "There's been a lot of talk about special interests, big labor, a top-down endorsement. The one-to-one program is the reverse. Instead of the member getting a letter from Lane Kirkland or the state AFL-CIO, he's been contacted by the guy who represents the union on the lowest level."
Since 1984, the "one-to-one" program has been continued, on a limited and experimental basis, by the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education (COPE) and by several unions. But a major effort hasn't been made and the lack of such an effort may be felt in October and November.
A Lower-Profile Effort in 1988
In an innovative use of communications technologies, the AFL- CIO has produced a videotape with statements by every announced presidential candidate from both parties appealing for the support of working people. National and local unions have ordered more than 13,000 copies of this videotape--which also includes irreverent commentaries by actor Ned Beatty and columnist Mark Shields--and are showing the tape at local union meetings. Following the distribution and showing of the tape, many national unions are polling their members on their presidential preferences. The NEA is conducting a similar process, producing its own candidate video and polling its own members.
Unlike 1984, the unions are pursuing a multi-candidate strategy in an effort to send labor delegates to the Democratic convention, win a favorable hearing for labor's concerns, and build a working relationship with whoever is nominated. With the AFL-CIO and the national unions declining to make endorsements at this stage in the process, there was support for every major candidate except Gary Hart, Bruce Babbitt and Albert Gore. As the political year began, Richard Gephardt enjoyed support within the United Auto Workers and other industrial unions for his stand on trade issues,
(balance of this article omitted here; unscannable) .
David Kusnet directed publicity in organizing campaigns
for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
He was a speech writer for the late AFSCME President Jerry Wurf and for
Walter Mondale during the 1984 campaign.