Even Big Labor Isn't Sure About Big Al

When Big Labor held a powwow in Chicago in early August, Vice-President Al Gore sent his personal emissary, President Clinton, in search of an early union endorsement. The answer: not now. It was the second time in four months that the AFL-CIO rebuffed attempts to win an endorsement for the Veep. The official union line is that locals need more time to meet with candidates. Says AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney: "We want to make sure our members are solidly behind whoever we endorse."

But there's another reason for labor's diffidence. Gore's campaign so far has left a lot of union officials unimpressed. The industrial unions want pledges that worker rights--to join unions and bargain collectively. And by keeping Gore on tenterhooks, labor figures it can win more concessions. That's why the unions are playing footsie with Bill Bradley, whose free-trade views closely resemble Gore's but who seems willing to offer more enticements.

The tussle for labor's seal of approval shows just how crucial union money, door-knocking, and voter turnout are in the early contests. While union membership overall is declining, union households are expected to cast some 30% of the vote in the Iowa caucuses and 25% of the vote in New Hampshire.

No one understands this better than Gore. On Aug. 5, within days of the AFL's rejection, the White House, at his urging, issued a "steel action program" to deal with the two-year-old steel-import crisis that has cost 10,000 jobs. The plan Calls on the U.S. to open talks with Japan, Korea, and Russia over cutting capacity--and to monitor more closely subsidies that some overseas steelmakers may be getting. Gore's goal: show he can help steelworkers while maintaining free-trade principles. But labor experts say his real aim is to send a signal to auto workers, who worry they'll fall victim to the current surge in car imports.

Bradley is also displaying his labor bona fides. Like Gore, he backs a minimum-wage hike and favors measures to make union organizing easier. In an Aug. 25 speech to the International Brotherhood of PainTers & Allied Trades, Bradley endorsed "common situs picketing," which would allow boycotts of an entire construction site even if some trade unions have not voted to join the picket line. And in the fall, Bradley will unveil the most potent weapon of all in his bid for labor support--a universal health-care plan.

The Teamsters could be the wild card. Insiders say new President James P. Hoffa is loath to endorse Gore, whose '96 reelection campaign worked closely with Hoffa predecessor and archenemy Ron Carey. The union has not decided whom to endorse--or even whether it will be a Democrat or a Republican. But spokesman Chip Roth says Bradley helped himself by backing a key Teamsters issue: a postponement of Mexican truck drivers crossing the border between Mexico and the U.S. Under NAFTA, the border is set to open on Jan. 1. So far, Gore has been silent on the truck issue.

POLL WOES. Is labor's endorsement in play? Bradley hopes so. Ultimately, Gore is expected to win over the AFL-CIO, possibly when it holds a biannual convention on Oct. 7-13 in Los Angeles. But even if he does, he can't expect its members to automatically follow suit. "Gore's problem isn't with the leadership, but with the rank and file," says Ed Sarpolus of Michigan pollsters EPIC-MRA.

Gore has another problem as well: the perception that he can't beat GOP front-runner George W. Bush. "Electability is becoming an issue for Gore," adds Sarpolus, whose July 21-29 poll of voters in heavily unionized Michigan put Bush at 50%, Gore at 35%. Among union members, Gore came out ahead but barely, at 46% to Bush's 36%. No wonder Bradley thinks he can win the right to wear the union label.

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