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HARRY BERNSTEIN / Labor

Dukakis Is a Friend and Ally of Unions, Not Their Tool

June 28, 1988|HARRY BERNSTEIN

Both organized labor and the Rev. Jesse Jackson pose difficult, politically awkward dilemmas for Michael S. Dukakis in his campaign for the presidency.

The Jackson problem is the more critical and highly visible one, getting constant, nationwide attention. Dukakis is struggling with the question of how Jackson can play a major role in his campaign without costing more votes than the civil rights leader can bring in.

While less critical, the issue of Dukakis' relations with organized labor is very important. On Aug. 24, the AFL-CIO will endorse the Massachusetts governor. With that, he will have the official blessing of almost every union in America.

Before that, though, on July 17, the day before the Democratic National Convention opens in Atlanta, there will be caucuses of nearly 1,300 union members who are delegates and alternates to the convention--the largest number at a political convention in history.

Most of the delegates from labor represent Dukakis, but at least a fourth of them are for Jackson and other candidates now out of the race.

Despite representing different candidates, the labor people are bonded by their loyalty to the labor movement.

They will be in a position to serve as a bridge between Dukakis and Jackson at the convention if differences arise between the candidates that threaten to upset the mood of unity that Democrats need for a victory in November. And that is labor's plan.

While the labor delegates are committed to the candidates they represent, the labor contingent will hold special daily caucuses to make sure they don't end up fighting one another on issues that might also threaten Democratic Party unity.

John Perkins, AFL-CIO political director, will be in constant touch by walkie-talkie with the labor delegates through union people on the convention floor to help them serve as peacemakers if battles do erupt.

The Republicans and labor unions historically have largely ignored one another--when they aren't fighting, as they have been during the entire Administration of President Reagan. Only six unionists are expected as delegates to the Republican convention.

By contrast--and further evidence of the increasing role labor plays in the Democratic Party--six of the 16 members of the Democrats' platform drafting committee are from labor, another record high.

Dukakis is not, and, of course, doesn't want to be, tagged as a "tool of organized labor," a label former Sen. Gary Hart tried with some success to pin on Walter F. Mondale in the 1984 presidential primaries.

The former vice president and unions had almost identical goals, but that made Mondale a natural ally, not a puppet, of labor.

The late Sen. Hubert Humphrey, too, was "accused" by his political enemies of being too closely tied to the labor movement. Humphrey, however, regarded that as a compliment. He had longer and even closer personal friendships than Mondale with many of the nation's union leaders.

Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy, too, were almost always in sync with labor and its goals. Those presidents boasted of their good relations with unions.

Unions were lukewarm, at best, however, toward former President Jimmy Carter. They were not in tune with him ideologically on many issues, and Carter had almost no acquaintances, much less personal friends, among union leaders when he first ran for President.

Dukakis is more like the other Democratic presidents and presidential candidates in his good relations with labor, and his rather moderate political and social goals are almost identical with those of most unions.

However, until now, Dukakis has not been a major player on the national political scene, so naturally his contacts with national union leaders are not as personal as those developed by the other liberal Democratic presidents and contenders who had been national figures before getting into presidential politics.

Paul Jensen, Dukakis' national political director, said there is a "partnership between the governor and labor. We are together on almost all issues, from minimum wage and health care to labor law reform."

Jensen, who, significantly, was a Mondale adviser and the his chief liaison with labor in 1984, said that, in Massachusetts, Dukakis meets frequently with union leaders individually and confers with them on a more formal basis at regular monthly meetings.

Jensen puts a high value on labor's vast political network, noting that unions were primarily responsible for Mondale getting the Democratic nomination in 1984.

And if there was any negative in labor's early endorsement of Mondale, that issue cannot be raised because Dukakis will not be endorsed until after he becomes the nominee, he noted.

There has been speculation that by waiting until August to endorse Dukakis, the unions are trying to help Dukakis distance himself from labor.

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