Despite declines, unions still can aid Democrats


BAL HARBOUR, Fla. -- The conventional wisdom for a decade now has been that organized labor has lost its political clout. Only 16 percent of American workers -- and less than 12 percent in the private sector -- belong to unions.

But if that line is valid, at least up to a point, it is also fair to say that labor still retains important influence in the Democratic Party. And never has that lesson been driven home more than in the parade of Clinton administration and party officials and Democratic candidates who have swarmed all over the annual winter meeting here of the AFL-CIO executive council.

The contingent from Washington included Vice President Al Gore, Speaker of the House Tom Foley, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, House Majority Whip David Bonior, presidential assistant George Stephanopoulos, Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm and a dozen other Cabinet secretaries and legislators of some weight.

What was perhaps more revealing, however, was that the corridors and lobby of the Sheraton Bal Harbour seemed alive with Democratic candidates from all parts of the country. They included some marquee names -- Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York and gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown of California, most notably. Cuomo even stayed over one night, contrary to his usual insistence on spending every night either in Albany or Queens.

But there were a dozen or more Senate candidates and a similar number of House candidates of lesser renown, people like Lana Pollack, a Senate candidate in Michigan; Cynthia Ruccia, a candidate for the House in Columbus, Ohio; and two young men running for Congress from districts in Mississippi and California.

The lesson in this is, of course, that Big Labor still can be important in some states and some congressional districts in terms of both the money and volunteer manpower it can provide to a campaign. Indeed, the atrophy of party organizations as such has meant that only groups like unions or churches -- those for whom political activity is an ancillary purpose -- can produce the volunteers that any campaign needs to supplement its spending on media.

The perception of labor as a declining force in American politics is founded on more than the fact unions represent an ever-smaller share of the work force except among public employees. During the 1980s union leaders failed miserably in their ability to deliver votes to Democratic presidential candidates when the choice was Ronald Reagan or George Bush.

The context changed somewhat in the past two or three years, however. First, moved by fear for the safety of their jobs, the so-called Reagan Democrats, many of them union workers, returned to the Democratic column. Then, with the election of Democrat Bill Clinton, they have found themselves with a president who shares most if not all of their goals and is producing on the economy.

The relationship between the administration and Big Labor has not been entirely smooth. The split over the North American Free Trade Agreement caused a de facto moratorium on labor financial contributions to the Democratic Party, a situation only now being corrected at this meeting.

But there is a clear recognition on both sides that the Democratic Party and the unions must hang together or hang separately. As Gore put it, "It's clear to me that our agreements far outnumber our disagreements."

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland took a similar line. "The general record of this administration is a good one," he said. "The thrust of their objectives is the same as ours."

Perhaps most important in the restored amity between labor and the Democratic Party is the shared goal of health care reform, a cause Kirkland compared to the passage of such landmark programs as Social Security in the 1930s.

The candidates who came here were, then, the ones who recognized an opportunity and seized it. The AFL-CIO may not be the most popular institution everywhere in the country but it is one that can make a difference for some Democrats next November.

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