The Workingman's President?

How Bush is wooing union Democrats who backed Reagan

With Democrats and moderate Republicans increasingly calling the shots on Capitol Hill, President Bush is eager to score a clear legislative victory for his national energy plan. The White House and energy lobbyists are leaning hard on wavering House members to back Vice-President Dick Cheney's blueprint. But most surprising is the plan's blue-collar support. Teamsters President James P. Hoffa has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill, telling lawmakers that more oil drilling means jobs, jobs, jobs for his union.

The Bush-Hoffa partnership is another sign that the White House is laying the groundwork to increase the President's share of the labor vote from the paltry 32% he received last year. The goal is to isolate the AFL-CIO leadership, who are firmly tied to the Democratic Party, both from their rank and file and from targeted unions that share common cause with the Bush Administration on a handful of issues.

That means handing out favors to some unions, including the Teamsters, the United Mine Workers, and the Steelworkers. It also means focusing on issues with meaning for union members in key swing states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan--from opposing the Kyoto global warming pact to clamping down on steel imports. When it comes to finding blue-collar sweet spots, "this Administration is politically savvy," says Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard.

There's good reason for Bush to focus on union voters. While just 13.5% of the workforce belongs to unions--down from 35% in the 1950s--26% of last November's voters hailed from labor households. Labor made 8 million phone calls to members, sent out 12 million pieces of mail, and spent more than $43 million to defeat Bush. On Election Day, the AFL-CIO delivered for Al Gore, giving him 63% of the union vote and tipping at least a half-dozen swing states--including the battlegrounds of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa--his way.

MODEST GOAL. Team Bush isn't hoping to duplicate Ronald Reagan's impressive feat in the 1984 Presidential election, when The Gipper came close to capturing a majority of union votes on the strength of his macho aura and appeal to socially conservative blue-collar workers--the soon-to-be-famous Reagan Democrats. Bush's more modest goal: to win just enough additional votes from the rank and file to nudge big industrial states into the GOP column in 2004. "I don't think anyone harbors pretensions that when we talk to groups about building pipelines or drilling for oil that they will set up PACs for us," says one White House official.

There was no hint in the first days of the Bush Presidency that the White House would be talking to labor at all. Soon after taking office, Bush signed four Executive Orders that were not exactly labor-friendly. One forbids favoring unionized companies when awarding publicly financed building projects; another makes it harder for unions to use dues for political purposes.

Soon afterward, the President encouraged Congress to overturn worker-safety ergonomics rules and adopted a strong pro-management stance during contentious contract negotiations between several major airlines and their unions. "At the beginning of the Administration, there was a general premise that having a relationship with labor was across the board a bad idea," says Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union.

The initial iciness began to thaw as Cheney gave representatives of the Teamsters, the UMW, the Carpenters, and the Boilermakers an advance peek at the Administration's energy plan, which he pitched as a jobs program opposed by overzealous environmentalists. The Teamsters estimate that the plan could create as many as 25,000 new jobs for its members. The President also made preliminary moves to block imports of cheap foreign steel.

NIMBLE FOOTWORK. That Bush is selectively reaching out to some unions does not mean he is bending his ardently pro-business ideology. While some labor leaders were invited to an energy briefing two days before the plan was unveiled, industry reps worked closely with the White House to craft the blueprint. And steel companies--which contributed over $2 million to Republicans in the 2000 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics--have lobbied hard for a clampdown on steel imports.

The White House strategy also requires some nimble footwork, and no one knows whether Bush will prove as smooth a ballroom stylist as his role model, Reagan. Even while Bush and Hoffa dance in step on oil drilling, they are sharply at odds when it comes to permitting Mexican trucks to cross the U.S. border. The Administration also differs with laborites on policy initiatives ranging from patients' rights to further trade liberalization.

That's not to say the Administration won't have any luck picking up union votes: Bush's plainspoken style and social conservatism appeal to many rank and filers. Says Charles Craver, professor of labor law at George Washington University: "There's probably more support for Bush among working people than the AFL-CIO would care to admit." Bush's ace in the hole could be his opposition to gun control, an issue that alienates many gun-owning unionists from the Democrats. The strategy worked in West Virginia, where Bush's stand on guns and support for the coal industry put the historically Democratic state's five electoral votes in the Republican column.

Staying true to a business-centric philosophy while appealing to working stiffs is a tough line to walk, though. And unlike Reagan, Bush can't count on charisma to woo union members. True, his targeted courtship of unions could win the loyalty of some, but it won't neutralize the political muscle that the AFL-CIO showed in the last election. And if the President doesn't incorporate more of blue-collar America's priorities into his agenda, labor's leadership could be out for blood in 2004.

By Alexandra Starr in Washington

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.