Has organized labor, with its fabled ballot-box muscle, turned into a 98-pound political weakling? In 2000, an all-out effort by the AFL-CIO could not put Democrat Al Gore over the top. Two years later, union leaders pledged to win back the House for the Democrats, but the party ended up losing the Senate, too. In the current Presidential contest, the two candidates who boasted the most early union endorsements, Missouri Representative Dick Gephardt and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, trailed far behind Massachusetts Senator John Kerry among the rank and file. Now Gephardt is gone, and Dean could be holding a one-way ticket to Palookaville. "Something's failed," says union political consultant Vic Kamber. "We've turned our people out, but they haven't voted the way we want them to."
Labor leaders blame flawed candidates and poor Democratic campaign strategies for the string of setbacks. They have delivered troops to the polls in massive numbers, and they say they shouldn't be held responsible for candidates who self-destruct or fail to talk about the lunch-pail economic issues and values of concern to their members. Privately, however, some labor leaders wonder if they themselves are out of touch. "Is it the [bad] campaigns, or is it how we deliver our message?" asks one union veteran. "We have no answers."
There's not much time to come up with some. Replacing George W. Bush in November is the top priority of AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. But tough-guy Bush remains personally popular with most white-male union members. Unless the leadership can persuade its followers to follow, the Democratic nominee could come up short in three strong union states that Bush captured in 2000: Missouri, Ohio, and West Virginia. "There is a concern, if we nominate Kerry, that he's going to be portrayed as another Dukakis liberal," worries one union official.
Still, with Kerry the clear front-runner, some in the AFL-CIO high command would like to jump on the bandwagon in the next month. Already, a half-dozen unions have endorsed Kerry, including the American Federation of Teachers and the Communications Workers of America. "Our people like Dean, but Dean is sinking," says CWA political director Michael Grace. "We want to beat Bush, and voters have responded to Kerry."
Taking a Time-out
Kerry is trying to build on his momentum by reaching out to Gephardt backers. But many of them, burned once this year, don't want to risk another failure. "Dick was our guy -- he's been with us for 30 years," says William Klinefelter, political director for the Steelworkers. "We did the best we could, but it didn't happen. Now we're going to catch our breath."
Dean's high-profile labor supporters at the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union are in an even tougher position. They've spent more than $2 million on a candidate who is 0 for 9 in the primaries.
Despite this winter of labor's discontent, Bush backers aren't taking anything for granted. While union bosses "picked the wrong horses" in the Democratic primary, says GOP pollster Bill McInturff, "they show up [at the polls] with real people." With many working-class voters feeling squeezed in a jobless recovery, the President has his work cut out for him. But, judging from recent history, so does the union high command. Many Democrats still blame Ralph Nader for costing then-Vice-President Al Gore the 2000 election. Now Nader is pointing an accusing finger back at Gore. He blames the ex-Veep for costing former Vermont Governor Howard Dean the 2004 Democratic nomination. Nader says Gore's endorsement ruined Dean by transforming him into just another politician pandering to Washington insiders. Nader, who has postponed his decision on whether to run again in '04 until mid-February, says he's not impressed with front-running Senator John Kerry and the rest of the field. "They are all below the line, as far as I'm concerned," the consumer advocate tells BusinessWeek. If Nader runs again, the 2000 Green Party nominee says he'll do it as an independent. The President may be spending $400 billion on defense. But the U.S. Air Force says there's not a penny to lease 100 Boeing (BA)tankers. The controversial $20 billion arrangement -- which some lawmakers oppose because buying the aircraft would be cheaper -- came under investigation by the Pentagon after Boeing said it discussed a job opening with an Air Force official who was negotiating the deal. Still, despite its absence from President Bush's 2005 budget, the Air Force hopes the program isn't dead. If the review concludes that the lease should go forward, and lawmakers agree, the Pentagon could shift money for the lease from other programs, the service says.