DETROIT -- Former Sen. Paul Tsongas sat on a bench at the Hermes Automotive Manufacturing plant and tried to convince members of United Auto Workers Local 174 why they should vote for a candidate who calls himself a pro-business Democrat.
"The Democratic Party doesn't win the White House," he siad, because nobody trusts us with the economy. We just give things away," Gov. Bill Clinton, he said, "wants to give you a middle-class tax cut of 97 cents a day that won't create a single job." With the $30 billion the tax cut would cost, Tsongas said, he would "grow new companies" through tax incentives that will produce the jobs that are the key to economic well-being.
It was a hard message to sell to labor, and it probably became harder when Tsongas replied to a question about his lack of support for legislation requiring the rehiring of striking workers, a basic litmus-test issue for organized labor. He said he favors forced arbitration because continued confrontation between labor and management will not help anybody.
Tsongas obviously will have to make this view more palatable to labor if he hopes to be a principal beneficiary of the labor vote that was cut adrift by the decision of labor's favorite candidate, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, to drop out of the race.
Clinton is no particular favorite of the labor leadership, either, because he has supported fast-track trade negotiations with Mexico, which labor argues will mean a mass export of American jobs. He also comes from a right-to-work state and has said that while he would sign federal legislation repealing such laws, he won't fight for repeal.
Jerry Brown has a strong labor record in California but is considered a long shot in a year the Democrats taste victory in the fall. He says he would like labor leadership's support here but is going after labor's rank and file, arguing that collective bargaining is part of his agenda for empowering voters eclipsed by the big money special interests supporting Clinton and Tsongas.
Frank Garrison, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, and Joe Mangone, the UAW political director, both say their members have been told to "vote their consciences" and do whatever it takes to become delegates to the Democratic National Convention in July.
Garrison calls this playing "the delegate game," and it is a longtime tactic of organized labor when its leadership and rank and file can't agree on a candidate. The objective is to build a labor caucus at the convention strong enough to have clout
Some labor leaders here are talking up Brown or voting uncommitted, arguing that, with Harkin out, it is now in the best VTC interest of organized labor to work for a stalemate and an old-fashioned brokered convention, wherein labor's influence can be asserted. But if Brown gets considerable support here -- Garrison says he thinks he may win 20 percent of the vote Tuesday -- it is likely to be on his own efforts, which have been very concentrated and energetic in Michigan.
The character issue that Clinton hoped would be disposed of in his sweep of the Southern primaries may continue to be a factor here, as it pertains to the question of electability in the fall. Garrison says: "There's a strong feeling here that Clinton can't survive any more torpedo hits, and we want to win. My fear is he'll get nominated and they'll drop another shoe on him." And he adds, no doubt with some wishful thinking, "I think we may yet see a wide-open convention."
After the 1988 Willie Horton episode, union leaders here have little doubt that even if there are no new Clinton wounds, President Bush's campaign will reopen the old ones. Tsongas, too, has been hitting Clinton hard here, on his relationship with and investment in an Arkansas savings and loan that ran afoul of the law.
Labor's vote is important here, but not everything, and it's not monolithic. Carl Kraske, an oiler at the Hermes plant, says his union's political advice "goes in one ear and out the other." Detroit's black vote is also up for grabs with Mayor Coleman Young not endorsing, and a large suburban vote should help Tsongas, who needs a victory here or in Illinois Tuesday to avoid the sense that Clinton's nomination is inevitable.