Pragmatism vs. sentiment divides unions on Democratic contenders Harkin is liked, but Clinton leads

January 21, 1992|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton is not the sort of front-runner Thomas R. McNutt, a local labor leader, is happy to see leading the pack of Democratic primary candidates.

So Mr. McNutt told the 40,000 members of his affiliate -- Local 400 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which covers Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington -- that Mr. Clinton came from a "right-to-work state with some of the lowest wages in the nation," was unlikely to challenge unfair labor laws and was "indifferent to the root cause" of declining worker income.

"I just wanted to try to stop what appeared to be a positive labor spin [for Clinton]," said Mr. McNutt, who is running as a Democratic convention delegate for Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.

The Clinton advance also caught the attention of Joe McDermott, president of the 265,000-member Civil Service Employees Association in Albany, N.Y. But Mr. McDermott liked what he saw, thought he could recognize a winner when he met one and endorsed Mr. Clinton.

Organized labor, this primary season, is a house divided.

The AFL-CIO's 35-member executive council, the presidents of the largest unions, will meet in February to judge whether there is broad enough consensus for an endorsement by a two-thirds vote of the organization's general board. Spokeswoman Candice Johnson said: "There is interest in having an endorsement in order to be participants [in the primaries]."

But with Senator Harkin -- the candidate initially expected to sweep the union field -- losing the electoral initiative to Mr. Clinton, the votes do not seem to be there. The unions are likely to be left to back their own favorites while the AFL-CIO waits until after the Democratic convention in July to flex its political muscle for the party's nominee.

Mark Hager, a political scientist with American University in Washington, said, "I think I detect a splintering in the ranks."

Gary Nordlinger, political consultant with Washington-based Nordlinger Associates, said, "What they [the AFL-CIO] have been trying to do over the last few years is to force consensus within the house of labor, to keep their efforts from being dissipated.

"My hunch is that if it starts looking like one of these candidates is moving ahead you will see some of these unions break [ranks]."

The early labor breaks appear to be aiding Mr. Clinton. He has picked up varying degrees of support from leaders of three major white-collar unions -- the 1.2 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the 573,000-member American Federation of Teachers, and the non-AFL-CIO, 2 million-member National Education Association.

AFSCME's largest affiliate, the 265,000-member New York state Civil Service Employees Association, has endorsed him and committed all its 17 delegates to him.

The affiliates in three of the 18 states where NEA affiliates are fielding delegates -- Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi -- have committed their efforts entirely to Mr. Clinton. In the other 15, no preference has been stated.

In the six states in which AFT members have filed as delegate candidates -- New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio and Rhode Island -- the latest delegate count shows:

* 30 for Mr. Clinton, including four AFT national vice presidents, three of whom are also presidents of union locals in New York City, New York state and Chicago.

* 18 for Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, including the president of the Philadelphia teachers union.

* 12 for Mr. Harkin, including Loretta Johnson, co-president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

"People had assumed at some point that Tom Harkin had, or would get, the AFL-CIO endorsement," said Rachelle Horowitz, AFT spokeswoman. "I think what it demonstrates is the votes for that are not there. Most likely what will happen is the AFL-CIO union support will be divided among the candidates."

Driving the early labor activity are the state deadlines for delegate candidate filing and a new pragmatism that is persuading some labor leaders to put political opportunity over personal preference by backing the likeliest winner ahead of the favored candidate.

Tom Mann, director of government studies at the liberal Brookings Institute, said, "In their heart of hearts, however much they might like what Tom Harkin is saying, many of them don't believe he is ever likely to be elected president. So I think there is a degree of pragmatism, after all these years out of the White House, that one doesn't ordinarily see from activists."

That apparently is what moved the Civil Service Employees Association in New York state.

"We have a great deal of respect for Senator Harkin, but we thought that Clinton had the best chance to win. . . . Winning is very important because we are in a crisis," said Michael Moran, communications director of the CSEA.

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