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AFL-CIO Campaign Curbs Frustrate Activists : Some Union Leaders Fear Losing Clout in Democratic Race, Look for Loopholes

October 29, 1987|HENRY WEINSTEIN and JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writers

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — At a breakfast meeting promoting the presidential candidacy of Sen. Paul Simon here Wednesday, co-host Robert Healey, one of the most powerful labor leaders in Simon's home state of Illinois, introduced himself in a curious fashion.

"Hello, I'm Robert Healey, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor and president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, but I'm told I'm not here in either capacity," Healey said, bringing laughter from some of the 200 union officials gathered in the Eden Roc Hotel.

He was referring to the guidelines adopted by the AFL-CIO in August--and reaffirmed Wednesday--that say none of the labor federation's 89 affiliated unions or any of its state or city federations is supposed to endorse a candidate unless the AFL-CIO's board votes by a two-thirds majority to make an endorsement.

However, as soon as Healey made the disclaimer he said that as an individual "I'll do whatever I can to see that Paul Simon becomes the next President."

Want More Involvement

Healey's statement was one of many examples at the AFL-CIO convention here this week of how politically active union leaders are anxious to get more involved in the Democratic race while operating within the federation guidelines, which are designed to foster unity and make labor a more cohesive political force.

Union political activists in Iowa, whose Feb. 8 caucuses will be the first contest in 1988, also are troubled by the restraints and fear they will lose their clout if they can't do more.

Four years ago at this time, in an unprecedented move, the AFL-CIO made a pre-primary endorsement of its longtime ally, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale. With considerable help from labor, he handily won the Iowa caucuses and went on to become the Democratic nominee in 1984.

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland had pushed for a pre-primary endorsement in an attempt to prevent the sort of warfare labor had engaged in during the 1980 Democratic primaries when unions were split between incumbent President Jimmy Carter and Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

This time, there will be no AFL-CIO endorsement before the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, and perhaps not until much later in the race. Labor is deeply divided among several of the Democratic candidates, particularly Simon, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson commands a good deal of labor support, too, but is considered unlikely to get a federation endorsement.

Labor support--through monetary contributions, phone banks and the assistance of key staff people--can be of vital importance to a candidate, particularly in the early primaries.

Several union political directors here said they and their members were anxious to get more involved in the campaign. A number of local union leaders in Iowa, New Hampshire and many of the Super Tuesday states already have declared their allegiances but are uncertain how far they can go in helping their candidates.

Key union political directors here said they felt endorsements by local and regional leaders were permissible under the AFL-CIO guidelines. And some clearly take an expansive view of what is permitted.

Jerry Clark, political director of the 1.1-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said that telephones in a local union hall could be used to make calls to members of that union on behalf of a candidate, or on behalf of a member of that union running for a delegate position.

Some union political directors seem to take an even more aggressive posture than Clark in what the AFL-CIO guidelines permit. "I tell my locals you have to read the guidelines with Swiss cheese in mind," said one who spoke on the condition of not being identified. "The only thing that's not permitted is an endorsement by the international union."

Don Stillman, governmental affairs director of the United Auto Workers and other officials of that union, indicated that the UAW had a more restrained view of the guidelines.

The differences reflected in conversations with Clark and Stillman here were mirrored by comments made by officials of their respective unions in Iowa. Don Mckee, an AFSCME regional president in Des Moines, said the union's state council would take a straw poll Saturday and expected that the council would endorse Dukakis in November because it was impressed with his record in dealing with public employees in Massachusetts. He said he didn't know how the AFL-CIO would react to such an action, but added that he felt he had a green light from the top leaders of his union in Washington.

In contrast, Chuck Gifford, a longtime UAW political director in Iowa, who has personally announced his support for Gephardt (a favorite with the union because of his tough stance on trade), lamented that union leaders in Detroit wouldn't permit a statewide endorsement of the type Mckee said AFSCME is contemplating.

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