The Media Shouldn’t Ignore Organized Labor in the Democratic Race

by Stuart Rothenberg May 10, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

It’s been a quadrennial happening for decades. Every four years, Democratic presidential hopefuls waddle up to one of the party’s holiest of political shrines, the AFL-CIO, and seek the blessing of organized labor. The national media covers the developments as religiously as it fawns over the newest hot candidate or dissects fundraising figures.

But this year, at least so far, there has been relatively little discussion about labor’s impact in the Democratic race. Democratic hopefuls haven’t been ignoring America’s unions, which are now represented by two umbrella organizations, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, but there is no great anticipation in the media about whom organized labor will go to bat for in the Democratic contest.

Has the 800-pound gorilla of Democratic politics become just another interest group in party politics? Or could labor ultimately flex its muscles between now and the time Democrats pick their nominee?

Four years ago, Democratic presidential hopefuls were battling over labor endorsements, with then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) widely regarded as the favorite of many industrial unions.

Gephardt fought hard for an early AFL-CIO endorsement, and while he had a shot of winning it, ultimately he fell short. Still, he regularly was characterized in the media as the potential beneficiary of strong union support in Iowa right up until his weak fourth-place showing finished off his candidacy.

Two other key unions, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, backed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose rocket also ultimately fizzled in the final weeks before the 2004 Iowa caucuses. Among the national labor unions, only the International Association of Fire Fighters hit the jackpot by endorsing Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) in late September 2003.

Gephardt’s defeat, followed by Dean’s implosion, raised questions about organized labor’s political clout within the Democratic Party, a head-scratching development considering labor’s financial and organizational muscle, which should have been particularly important in Iowa’s low-turnout caucuses.

That experience may explain why some in the union movement are hesitant to get too far ahead of the curve in picking a favorite this time. But political insiders argue there is another more important reason for inaction at this point: All of the Democratic frontrunners seem equally acceptable to labor. “They all have a lot of friends running,” one Democratic veteran noted recently.

Once again, the AFL-CIO is trying to keep its members in line, at least until the executive council decides whether one contender might be able to round up the two-thirds of support necessary for an endorsement at a September general board meeting.

The AFL-CIO’s executive council approved a statement in early March that asked “every affiliate to take no action to endorse any candidate until the General Board of the Federation can make a decision whether or not to endorse a candidate prior to the primaries,” and the council noted the organization will host a candidate forum in Chicago in August as well as a number of other meetings with staff, union leaders and candidates.

Veteran observers currently express doubt that the AFL-CIO will deliver a pre-Iowa endorsement, and the likelihood of an early Change to Win endorsement isn’t much better. However, that doesn’t mean organized labor is staying entirely on the sidelines as the Democratic contest heats up.

The Service Employees International Union, the International Association of Fire Fighters and the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department already have held presidential forums, and Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) already have attended AFL-CIO town-hall-style forums. Other Democratic hopefuls will be invited to similar events.

Moreover, some union officials clearly have preferences for the nomination. For example, Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE HERE, which endorsed Edwards during his previous bid, reportedly is working hard again for the former North Carolina Senator. (UNITE HERE and the SEIU are two of the seven Change to Win affiliated unions.)

Edwards, who responded to an Associated Press question about what he would want to be doing if he weren’t in politics by answering “mill supervisor,” has spent considerable time wooing labor, and one union insider guessed that if organized labor took a straw poll about which Democrat to support, Edwards would be in the lead, though not close to the two-thirds majority a candidate would need for an AFL-CIO endorsement.

But even assuming that organized labor doesn’t deliver a single endorsement later this year, individual unions could choose to do so sometime after August but before Iowa. And even if few do, locals in key states, and union leaders in those locals, likely will start to choose favorites well before the end of the year.

Organized labor is still active in many ways, including promoting its agenda and giving candidates opportunities to meet with its members. Ultimately, some unions could play an important role on Feb. 5, when a number of large states with a significant union membership, including Illinois, New York, New Jersey and California, will play a role in selecting the party’s nominee.

For now, however, organized labor isn’t quite the hot political ticket to the national media that it was four years ago. That is likely to change as the summer approaches and journalists figure out that labor endorsements, while not guaranteeing victory, still matter and that the campaigns are very much still fighting for them.