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Democratic Race Sows Labor Disunion

Before Gephardt and Dean, Iowa's industrial and service unions were one political force.

November 29, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

DES MOINES — John Campbell is a blue-collar philosopher who routinely steps off the factory floor at the Firestone tire plant here to marshal fellow foot soldiers in the United Steelworkers Union on causes close to their hearts, minds and wallets.

The 47-year-old high school dropout often joins forces with Judy Lowe -- a no-nonsense single mother and an organizer for white-collar government workers -- to knock on doors, dial telephones and stage cold-weather rallies to get out the vote for politicians sympathetic to working families.

For years, Iowa's industrial and service unions have generally acted as one clan, one unified political force. But the effort to choose a Democratic candidate to oppose President Bush in the 2004 election has caused fissures in this traditionally ironclad solidarity.

Worried over factory closings and loss of jobs, 21 industrial unions across America are backing Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who is known as labor's man in Washington, D.C. Workers in overalls and hard hats want to show their continued loyalty to a politician who has amassed a near perfect voting record in favor of their causes.

But this month, the nation's two largest service employee unions -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union -- broke ranks with their labor brethren to support Howard Dean. Not only has the former Vermont governor promised to focus on health care -- a key issue for the two unions -- but white-collar loyalists say Dean has the best chance of beating Bush and returning the White House to the Democrats.

In Iowa, the site of the Jan. 19 caucuses that kick off the battle for the Democratic nomination, the rift within the ranks of organized labor has pitted steelworkers against nurses, machinists against government secretaries and auto workers against public administrators.

And for the first time, it has caused John Campbell to face off against Judy Lowe.

"This is new ground for me, to wage total war against people like Judy that you worked so closely with in the past," says Campbell, who is working as a union organizer during a six-month break from the factory, which manufactures tires for tractors and behemoth earth-movers.

With their respective union support, Dean and Gephardt have tapped into well-oiled machines of political organizing. Campbell and Lowe are emblematic of hundreds of savvy, streetwise union veterans in Iowa who are relying on old relationships -- while creating new ones -- in their effort to get fellow union members to support their candidate.

Their efforts -- the road miles and long hours -- are a major reason either Dean or Gephardt is expected to win in Iowa.

Campbell, a self-admitted recovering alcoholic who quotes German philosophers and Irish poets, has brought his message to church meetings and social gatherings at union halls, working-class bars and coffeehouses. He's visited retired union members to ask that they not turn their backs on a cause so important to those workers still laboring on the assembly line. And he's returned to the Firestone factory during the graveyard shift to visit with fellow line workers, passing out pamphlets and signing up new Gephardt supporters.

Lowe, a 50-year-old mother of two grown children, has her own style as an AFSCME organizer. At one recent Dean rally at a Des Moines high school gymnasium, she helped distribute egg cartons that contained not eggs but materials to help supporters each recruit another 12 Dean followers. The slogan: "Dozens for Dean."

Lowe and her public sector colleagues have also tapped into a more modern resource: the Internet. Unlike many industrial unions that send out their twice weekly blast e-mails mostly to union halls, the Dean campaign and its supporters are using cyberspace to raise money and pinpoint their message.

At Dean's campaign Web site, members from various unions can go to a page specifically designed for their interests -- a place where they can contribute both time and money.

Still, in terms of reaching people, "there is no better tactic than union members getting out and talking to other union members face-to-face," said Gina Glanz, a political strategist for the service employees union. "That means going to the break rooms at the work place and talking about issues. That's what brings votes."

That's especially important in Iowa, a state of almost 3 million people where analysts predict that some 100,000 voters will turn out for the caucus process, which takes place in winter, when traveling can be hazardous. And it's not just snow and wind that challenge turnout. In the caucuses, casting a vote isn't as easy as just pulling a lever.

Instead, Iowans gather at thousands of meeting places -- fire stations, civic centers and even each other's living rooms. There they discuss the candidates and the issues before the voting begins.

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