Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Wooing Labor
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Don't make the mistake of judging organized labor's strength by numbers alone - by the fact that unions now represent only about 12 percent of the country's workforce. Certainly those who are seeking the Democratic Party's presidential nomination know better.

The Democratic candidates are waging extraordinary campaigns to try to win union endorsements -- campaigns that are at least as big as any such labor-wooing campaigns ever waged. And in years past, mind you, unions represented a much greater share of the workforce.

The candidates are quite aware that whatever their membership numbers, whatever the proportion of workers they represent, unions have developed political muscle that can very well mean the difference between victory and defeat for many candidates.

Unions proved that decisively in helping Democrats regain control of Congress in last year's midterm elections. It was by far the most extensive, most expensive and most successful political campaign in labor history. Unions spent more than $66 million, and put more than 100,000 members to work registering and turning out voters.

One-fourth of all voters were union members, and they favored Democratic candidates - all of them union-endorsed -- by a margin of three-to-one. The Democratic majority in congressional races overall was nearly seven million votes, and union households provided 80 percent of that margin.

Unions are gearing up to spend even more money on the presidential race next year than they did on the congressional races and put twice as many volunteers to work.

"Our members are building an army to make more calls, knock on more doors, and turn out more voters than ever," declared Gerald McEntee, head of the AFL-CIO's political committee.

The Democratic candidates obviously believe that labor will do what it promises to do, and each of the candidates obviously wants labor to do it for them. That could cinch a victory for the Democratic nominee, whoever it may be.

In presidential elections over the past several decades, Democratic candidates tended to remain a bit distant from unions, which were frequently branded as "special interests" or as being too far to the left of popular centrist Democrats such as Bill Clinton.

It was relatively rare, in fact, for candidates to talk directly about unions or about the labor movement at all. They talked about "workers" and "employees," but not very often - if at all - about their unions.

But now it's Hilary Clinton, for example, telling a recent union meeting that "it is absolutely essential to the way America works that people be given the right to organize and bargain collectively."

The Democratic candidates have been walking with striking union members on picket lines, as well as addressing union meetings and stressing that their voting records and other previous political activities have been pro-labor.

Some of the candidates already have won endorsements from particular unions within the AFL-CIO, but the key endorsements from the big labor federation itself and from its largest affiliates will come later. And the campaigning for the endorsements will continue to be among the most active political campaigning in recent years.

That labor is being so steadfastly wooed is an extremely important political development. It could benefit millions of Americans -- union and non-union members alike -- by helping elect a president who, unlike the virulently anti-labor George Bush, undoubtedly would be sympathetic to the unions that helped elect him or her and support at least part of their progressive agenda.

Copyright (c) Dick Meister