WASHINGTON -- In endorsing Gov. Bill Clinton, the AFL-CIO has once again bowed reluctantly to reality, after seeing its own choice rolled over and flirting briefly with an old failed strategy to exert clout at the Democratic National Convention.
When Sen. Tom Harkin, organized labor's favorite, dropped out of contention for the presidential nomination in advance of the Michigan and Illinios primaries, most union leaders found themselves adrift. They had hoped that Harkin would be able to hang on until the political calendar reached those two key industrial states, where they could have a shot at making him a credible candidate.
But after "winning" the uncontested caucuses in his home state of Iowa, Harkin never got his candidacy off the ground, and money woes coupled with public disinterest forced him prematurely to the sidelines. Labor was suddenly faced with three unappetizing choices -- former Sen. Paul Tsongas, the pro-business candidate; former Gov. Jerry Brown, a man who had a good labor record but was making war on the establishment of which labor was a part; and Clinton of Arkansas, who hails from a right-to-work, low-wage state.
In Michigan particularly, key labor leaders suggested to rank-and-file workers that they either vote for uncommitted slates or cut whatever deals they could with whatever candidates to get to the convention as delegates, whereupon they could work for labor's interests.
That latter strategy seldom yielded much for labor in other years and got nowhere this year. The United Auto Workers and a few other local unions backed Brown in Michigan and helped him to second place ahead of Tsongas there, but Brown's hopes of strong labor backing crumbled in New York.
Without the AFL-CIO's endorsement, Clinton won the blue-collar vote in Illinois, Michigan and New York and carried all three states. Organized labor suddenly risked being on the outside looking in -- a familiar position. Except for 1984, when its candidate from the start, Walter Mondale, was nominated, the AFL-CIO has not seen a clear-cut preference chosen since Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
Even Mondale disappointed many of the labor leaders by turning a deaf ear to them on important decisions. Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO president, made oblique reference to that fact in disclosing the federation leadership's decision to come out for Clinton now.
Because Mondale went into the 1984 convention "exhausted" by the long ordeal of delegate-accumulation, he said, he "made a few mistakes" and did not have "adequate consultation and input from all the people on whom he would have to depend for success." One of the matters to which Kirkland clearly was alluding was Mondale's decision to state flatly in his acceptance speech, without consulting labor, that he would raise taxes. That position was regarded as a kiss of political death to union members, many of whom in 1980 had voted for Ronald Reagan.
In backing Clinton this time out, organized labor was playing a weak hand, as demonstrated by the fact that it had no single litmus-test issue it could force Clinton to swallow. When asked about Clinton coming from a right-to-work state, Kirkland dodged, saying he was preferable to George Bush -- an observation that Kirkland probably could have made about any of the Democratic contenders in this recession.
The old up-or-down issue for labor, repeal of Section 14B of the National Labor Relations Act permitting state right-to-work laws, has been given short shrift by Clinton. He has said that if it came to his desk as president, he would sign it, but didn't think that was going to happen and wasn't going to expend a lot of effort on making it happen.
In other times, that sort of answer might have been expected to cast him into organized labor's darkest pit. But Kirkland & Co. can count as well as anybody, and they recognize that only an unforeseen development can keep Clinton from the nomination. So they are going along now, in the hope that Clinton can get his campaign against Bush on track.
As for Brown, the AFL-CIO's endorsement is a crusher as he heads into Pennsylvania, a strong labor state, for its April 28 primary.