KENOSHA, Wis. -- In the cluttered offices of striking United Auto Workers Local 960 yesterday, there was abundant evidence both of Big Labor's return to the Democratic fold and of its much reduced clout.
Eugene Johnson, a machine operator with 22 years in at Macwhyte Co., said he voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and isn't afraid to split his ballot when the right candidate comes along. But after two years of the Republican Congress, he has had enough.
Democrats won all of his votes yesterday, from President Clinton, a man about whom Johnson has some frank reservations, to Lydia Spotswood, a labor-friendly Kenosha alderman trying to unseat one of the Republican freshmen swept into office two years ago.
"I'm afraid of Dole and Gingrich. I'm deathly afraid of them," said Johnson, 48, a father of three with red hair and Elvis sideburns.
He and a handful of other Local 960 members were playing cribbage yesterday in the union's office in the Kenosha Union Club, where canned food was being collected for strikers. They were waiting to take their turns on the picket lines. About 300 UAW members are in the second month of a strike against Macwhyte, which makes brake cables for automobiles.
Kenosha, a one-time hotbed of organized labor, sits in the 1st Congressional District in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin. The district has a long history of ballot-splitting and hard-to-categorize voters -- they went for Reagan twice, then Dukakis and Clinton.
When native son Les Aspin left Congress to become Clinton's defense secretary, voters filled his seat with a labor-backed state representative, Peter W. Barca. They tossed him out a year later for Republican Mark W. Neumann, a millionaire homebuilder and ally of Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Interviews at the Union Club revealed little concern about Whitewater, Bosnia or who was going to cut Medicare more. There was a greater preoccupation with getting government to work efficiently and surviving in the region's fast-changing economy.
Kenosha, a city of 80,000 that was once home to nearly 17,000 autoworkers, has seen its industrial base erode. It has benefited from a building and business boom, though, as new residents migrate from the sprawling suburbs of Chicago, 70 miles south.
Labor leaders acknowledge that their influence in the district has plummeted with the loss of union jobs. But what they have lost in numbers, union leaders hope to make up in solidarity at the voting booth.
Johnson thinks Clinton has done a good job in his first four years but sees some value to the checks and balances a Republican Congress would provide. A Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, Johnson voted for Reagan largely out of a concern that the military not be allowed to deteriorate.
But he is edgy about the GOP drive to reduce workplace safety rules and was hoping yesterday for a Democratic takeover.
Gary Doerflinger, 54, went to work at Macwhyte after he got out of the Army 35 years ago and now runs a tool room. He tends to vote Democratic, but supported both Eisenhower and Nixon.
Smoking Camel cigarettes and wearing a camouflage hunting cap, Doerflinger said yesterday, "I'm for Clinton all the way."
He favors Clinton's support for raising the minimum wage and national health care reform.
And having seen the local Pabst Brewing Co. plant slash retirees' health benefits, Doerflinger wants the government to do more to protect the pensions and health care of people such as him. He'd like to see striker replacement laws stiffened so union members don't have to worry about losing their jobs when they walk out. Don Irish, a 59-year-old clerk, is pleased with Clinton, he said. As for Congress? "I don't care who's in there," he said. "I just wish they'd get their act together and quit bickering."
Pub Date: 11/06/96