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Union backing for Gephardt and Dean fails
Labor's election flop

By Lee Sustar | February 13, 2004 | Page 11

DOES LABOR have any political clout left at all? That was the question after labor's double debacle in Iowa's Democratic caucus, when key unions' chosen candidates, Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt, were crushed by John Kerry and John Edwards. Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), pulled the plug on Dean after the candidate's lousy performance in the February 7 primaries and caucuses.

Last November, McEntee came up with a "big bang" theory in which his union's endorsement of Dean, timed to coincide with that of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)--with a combined 3 million members--would propel the former Vermont governor into the White House, the Washington Post reported. "We bring money, we bring boots on the ground, and we bring blood and treasure to the process," McEntee told reporters then.

The move pitted SEIU and AFSCME against 11 mostly blue-collar unions, led by the Teamsters, the United Steelworkers of America and the International Association of Machinists, who backed Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). When Gephardt bit the dust with a fourth-place finish in Iowa, those unions were reeling as well.

"There were working-class neighborhoods in Des Moines where Gephardt didn't even make the [15 percent] threshold," a union organizer told the Washington Post. "That's just unbelievable."

Of course, the unions will sign up to the eventual Democratic nominee and pour millions of dollars and countless hours of activity into the campaign. But the expectation that early labor endorsements could shape the Democratic primaries--let alone the general election--has been shattered.

The problem isn't organizational. Labor can turn out votes: more than one in four voters in the 2000 general elections came from union households. The problem is that labor outsources its politics to whichever candidate it happens to back--nationally as well as at the state and local level.

So rather than labor driving issues that can appeal to working people--such as universal health care, protection of pensions and Social Security, jobs programs--the unions follow the lead of Democratic operatives and political consultants. Rather than an overarching labor agenda or even campaign themes, unions become unquestioning supporters of whatever Democrat candidate comes along.

Except when they back a Republican, that is. The SEIU, the driving force of the New Unity Partnership (NUP) caucus that claims to have a plan to revitalize labor, endorsed New York Gov. George Pataki in the 2002 elections. The SEIU's Stern has bought tickets to Republican fundraisers--and a NUP strategy document envisions a meeting with White House strategist Karl Rove.

The SEIU's support for Dean and Pataki reflects the political limitations of labor's would-be saviors--"electable" Democrats and "realistic" support for Republicans. But the old-school approach of the Teamsters and the Steelworkers--backing for a supposed longtime "friend of labor" like Gephardt--is no better.

Gephardt was a founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, which organized the party's shift to the right over the last 20 years. He is an extremely cautious, establishment politician who let George W. Bush off the hook again and again--for example, providing political cover for the Iraq war.

So with SEIU and AFSCME pushing Dean's "electability" and the Teamsters touting Gephardt's Washington connections, union voters went for a candidate who could claim to be stronger on both counts--John Kerry. In any case, all three candidates accept the pro-corporate agenda embraced by the Democratic Party and are thoroughly dominated by big business, no matter what pro-worker rhetoric the candidates may come up with.

As long as the unions remain tied to the Democratic Party, they'll be welcomed as sources of funds and footsoldiers, but relegated to bit roles in policy decisions. Labor needs to put forward its own political agenda and organize to fight for it--and develop its own independent political alternative.

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