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Revitalized Unions Pour Money, Labor into Democratic Campaigns


Along with Al Gore and company, Staples Center this week will showcase a born-again U.S. labor movement--confident, pragmatic and more vital to the Democrats' success than it has been in decades.

Far from the besieged dinosaur that candidate Bill Clinton brushed aside eight years ago, organized labor today is growing at a record clip and getting smarter about using its members in targeted political campaigns.

"Look at you--1,500 strong, 30% of the delegates to this convention and 100% of the soul of the Democratic Party," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said Sunday to cheering union members at the Wilshire Grand Hotel. "With your help, we are going to run the most ambitious grass-roots people-powered effort that we have ever had."

In an indication of labor's importance this election, the rally drew appearances by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt and, by remote video, Vice President Gore. Sweeney and five other national labor officers, representing a new generation of leadership in the union movement, will address the Democratic convention this week.

From retired auto workers in Michigan and Illinois to janitors and hospital cooks on paid leave in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, thousands of union members will spend the next few months making contact with potential voters in decisive states.

Steven Rosenthal, political director for the AFL-CIO, which represents 13 million workers, said the federation plans to place issue pamphlets in the hands of at least 22% of its rank and file--double the rate of two years ago. And unions are increasingly using Web sites and e-mail to keep their members politically informed.

That massive outreach effort will save the Democrats a bundle: They're budgeting just half the $100 million that Republicans have set aside for mobilization. AFL-CIO polling also found that such worker-to-worker campaigning is far more effective at motivating voters than mailings or television ads.

"By making that personal contact, they do something that is hard to come by in modern campaigns," said Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick of Los Angeles. "And in the kind of close election we're expecting this year, that can have a very dramatic impact on the outcome."

Labor also may benefit from a less tangible dynamic going into this election: a sense of optimism. "It's no secret that for many years, labor unions had a loser mentality," said Andrew Stern, president of the fast-growing Service Employees International Union, now the largest union in the nation. "I think we finally figured out that instead of wringing our hands we should be extending them to help people understand and take part in the electoral process."

In 1998 congressional elections, exit polls showed that union members, who are about 16% of the work force, accounted for 23% of voters--up from 13% four years earlier. Rosenthal said labor's Project 2000 hopes to drive the rate up even higher. "They've got the money, but we've got the people."

But labor also is spending cash, and lots of it. Unions gave more to Democratic political action committees this election cycle--$34 million--than any other interest group, according to the Campaign Study Group.

The AFL-CIO alone plans to spend $46 million on its political program during this two-year cycle, Rosenthal said, with most of it going to the Democrats.

All that activity raises the question: What is labor getting for its money and energy? After all, both President Clinton and Gore have repeatedly butted heads with unions on the crucial issue of trade, culminating with their support for normalized relations with China this spring. Gore's selection last week of free-trade enthusiast Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate only added to the friction.

Indeed, although the AFL-CIO gave Gore an early boost by endorsing his candidacy in October, several powerful industrial unions, including the United Steelworkers of America and the United Auto Workers, waited weeks and months to fall in line, with the UAW only relenting last Tuesday. The 1.4-million member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has endorsed both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in the past, still has not made an endorsement.

"For a while, we debated internally," said Gary Hubbard, spokesman for the Steelworkers, which has seen its ranks decimated by global competition since the early 1980s. "Some people said, 'Screw it. Let the Democrats crash and burn.' But as we started to think about it, we realized that would be a stupid thing to do. The Republican ticket is a very frightful thing for our members."

Union members are hardly unanimous in supporting Gore, and many will take their concerns to the streets this week, joining protests against global trade, corporate campaign contributions and income inequality. But for the most part, union leaders have distanced themselves from the protesters, closing ranks around a candidate they view as their best option.

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