SAN FRANCISCO — All weekend here, John Perkins, the energetic, ebullient political director of the AFL-CIO, went from meeting room to meeting room on the second floor of the St. Francis Hotel urging union leaders from the Western states to get involved in the 1988 presidential race as soon as possible. Perkins got an enthusiastic response as he told the unionists that they could make a real impact because the 1988 contest will be the most open since 1960.
But at this point it is far from clear whether organized labor will coalesce in support of one candidate before the caucuses and primaries begin 11 months from now. Labor's dilemma about whom to back was captured in a small black button Perkins wore on his lapel. The button was wordless, emblazoned only with a red question mark.
No Clear Favorite
Jim Wood, associate political director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said he thought New York Gov. Mario Cuomo would have had the best chance of getting the pre-primary endorsement. With Cuomo out of the race, Wood said there is no clear favorite.
Some support for virtually every Democratic contender was evident in conversations here but hardly any for Republican candidates, even though the AFL-CIO is formally considering the possibility of a Republican endorsement, too. Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukasis and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt all have good relations with organized labor, have indicated that they would like the endorsement and are considered to have a shot at getting it.
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson isn't given much of a chance, even though he was credited with frequently speaking out on behalf of working people by Jim Murry, executive secretary of the Montana Federation of Labor, and several other people here.
The current front runner, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, remains a controversial figure among many union leaders because he attacked organized labor as a "special interest" during the 1984 primaries after unsuccessfully pursuing the AFL-CIO endorsement in 1983. "Labor is still negative on Hart; he said too many bad things last time," commented Warren Nuesmeyer, a member of the United Steelworkers of America and chairman of the Democratic Party in Salt Lake City.
Nonetheless, Hart has attempted to mend his fences with labor and has hired Dick Murphy, former political director of the Service Employees International Union, to spearhead his efforts to garner the AFL-CIO endorsement this year. Michael McNeill, a vice president of the International Assn. of Firefighters from Denver and a longtime Hart backer, said there definitely is support for Hart among union members.
Indeed, in a recent straw poll of Democratic candidates among 800 members of the International Assn. of Machinists in Seattle, Hart was far ahead, said union official Bill Walkama.
An Unusual Effort
Hart may be able to broaden that support in the coming months as a result of an unusual effort the AFL-CIO is undertaking to inform its members about where the candidates stand. The labor federation is asking all 14 of the current potential presidential aspirants--Democrats and Republicans alike--to submit written responses to four questions aimed at gauging their sensitivity to American workers and to respond on videotape to a question designed to measure leadership ability.
The written questions--dealing with the budget deficit, the trade deficit, "human needs" programs and organized labor's "proper role in the political process"--were sent out last week and responses are due April 17. The written answers and the videotapes will be unveiled on May 6 in Washington, according to Tom Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. He said the federation would publish a special issue of its newspaper and make copies of the tapes available to unions throughout the country.
He urged the union leaders from 13 states who gathered here to make the widest possible use of the materials as part of an effort to stimulate membership participation in the campaign.
Several union political activists said the federation wanted to elect as many labor delegates as possible to the Democratic and Republican conventions, regardless of whether the federation makes a pre-primary endorsement, and they said the elaborate process that the AFL-CIO has embarked on would help in that effort.
"This procedure is quite exciting, getting people on the record," said Wood of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "It will really be good for us in local union meetings this summer when we're trying to build interest."
Most of the people attending the conference were mainstream union officials. However, some discordant opinions were voiced by local rank and filers. Dave Spector, a member of the National Assn. of Letter Carriers, said he was dismayed that the AFL-CIO leadership was not asking the candidates where they stood on foreign affairs.
Foreign Policy 'a Key'
"A candidate's position on foreign affairs is a key part of his viewpoint on what makes a just society," Spector said. He also said that pinning a candidate down on his position on the use of U.S. military resources in Central America and other parts of the globe was a key element in determining whether the candidate had a realistic position on how to cut the nation's budget deficit.
Kim Scipes, a member of the Graphic Communications International Union, said he thought that Perkins' presentation had been "very detailed and impressive," but added that "if the AFL-CIO put this much effort into organizing workers, labor wouldn't be in the bad situation it is today."