Will Labor Be 1992's Comeback Player Of The Year?

It was an intoxicating time for labor as the AFL-CIO met in Detroit on Nov. 11-14. President Bush, wounded by a sagging economy, is dropping in the polls. Democrat Harris L. Wofford credited labor for playing a key role in his upset victory in the Pennsylvania Senate race. And labor's issues -- health care, the middle-class squeeze, unemployment benefits -- have caught on with voters. Labor politicos, long on the outside of Presidential politics looking in, are thinking that 1992 may be their year.

The enthusiasm may be a bit premature. After all, the public is showing increasing distaste for the sort of insider politics epitomized by Big Labor. Most of the Democratic Presidential candidates are painting themselves as outsiders, ready to attack the mess in Washington. And only the giddiest labor pol hearing all six declared Democrats at the convention could overlook the fact that all but Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa strike a moderate tone.

BEHOLDEN. Even so, labor still has a lot to offer a Presidential contender. In this late-starting campaign, no candidate has put together an effective field organization. And fund-raising is way behind schedule. Labor can help with both problems -- providing foot soldiers, phone banks, and a flood of PAC money. Union pols also hope that the shift in the political focus back toward the sort of domestic social issues that labor backs will take the sting out of the charge that the AFL-CIO is just another special interest. "Our enemies have always said that unions are out of touch with the rank and file," says Janice La Chance, political director of the American Federation of Government Employees. "Now, we have shown that labor speaks not just for its members but for the entire middle class." Adds Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers: "Labor's endorsement may cost some votes, but no one is saying: 'Don't give it to me.' "

The AFL-CIO is unlikely to endorse a candidate before the Democratic convention next July. Instead, President Lane Kirkland will urge the election of as many labor-affiliated convention delegates as possible. This approach ensures that labor doesn't commit early to a loser and that the nominee will owe something to the unions. "In a way, we're lucky we don't have a candidate we are obligated to support," says George Gould, political director of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

If labor went with its emotions, Harkin would be the choice. But strategists, who want a winner, worry that the Iowa populist may be too liberal. "Our hearts tell us one thing and our heads another," says one labor operative.

Unions would jump in a second for New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo if he takes the plunge. Meanwhile, many are intrigued by Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. His youth and distinguished Vietnam war record appeal to many laborites. But Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton's smooth performance in Detroit made a better impression than Kerrey's stilted delivery. The other declared candidates -- former Massachusetts Senator Paul E. Tsongas, Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder, and former California Governor Jerry Brown -- are nonstarters in the labor crowd.

The AFL-CIO is basking in the embrace of the Democratic candidates. But if voters continue to rage at the political Establishment, challengers won't want to be identified too closely with labor's agenda. That means that next year, candidates may be handling the unions with asbestos gloves.

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