Iowa unions aren't united

January 12, 2004|By Jules Witcover

DES MOINES, Iowa - "Solidarity" is the customary byword in the labor movement, but it's being intentionally ignored here as Iowans mobilize for the Jan. 19 Democratic presidential precinct caucuses.

With the national AFL-CIO having declined to endorse a candidate and state federations thus prohibited from doing so, organized labor in Iowa is split, essentially between longtime champion Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of neighboring Missouri and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Mr. Gephardt has the backing of 21 unions in Iowa under a new national umbrella organization called the Alliance for Economic Justice. But Dr. Dean has been endorsed nationally by two of the largest AFL-CIO unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

In a state with 135,000 AFL-CIO members, according to Mark Smith of the Iowa Federation of Labor, and about 32,000 more in the state teachers union, the labor vote could be decisive, especially as far as Mr. Gephardt is concerned. Chuck Rocha, his Iowa political director, says the Alliance for Economic Justice represents about 90,000 Iowa union members.

In his first presidential bid in 1988, Mr. Gephardt rode to victory in the Iowa caucuses with a late surge of support from labor and other fellow Midwesterners. Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer says much of that support remains solid. Mr. Rocha says Mr. Gephardt's strong opposition to international trade agreements has broadened that support with industrial unions in the alliance.

Larry Scanlon, AFSCME's national political director, says the huge public-sector union backing Dr. Dean holds bargaining rights for 30,000 Iowans. But, according to Kim Miller of SEIU, the service-sector union has a membership of only 1,300 in the state. Both, however, have strong national political operations organizing on the ground for the caucuses in a system that puts a high premium on grass-roots voter identification and turnout.

Mr. Scanlon, who is coordinating the labor efforts in Iowa on behalf of Dr. Dean, says AFSCME has members in all of the state's 99 counties and campaign activity "wherever there's a crossroads and a stop sign." Of both AFSCME and SEIU, he says, "there's a political culture built into our organizations."

Mr. Rocha, who also is national political director for the United Steelworkers of America, and John Lapp, Mr. Gephardt's state campaign director, argue that the unions making up the pro-Gephardt alliance represent blue-collar workers who are more highly motivated for the caucuses than the public-sector and service employees. The reason, they say, is that these workers have been hit much harder by Bush administration trade and other labor policies. Mr. Rocha notes that of the 3.3 million job losses under President Bush, 2.6 million have been suffered by the manufacturing sector.

One other candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, is backed by the firefighters union, but it is believed to have only a modest political impact here. Mr. Smith notes that all of the Democratic candidates have strong labor voting records and hence the overall labor vote may well be spread among several of them on caucus night.

That vote also could be somewhat diluted by what some here say could be a record turnout. Most of the campaigns claim to be better organized and motivated than in the past as a result of intense dislike of President Bush among Democratic voters.

The intensity is based not only on perceived anti-labor policies, Democratic campaign strategists say, but also on the manner of Mr. Bush's Supreme Court-anointed election in 2000 and on strong disapproval of his war in Iraq and its tumultuous aftermath.

That is why, Mr. Smith says, the question of electability has become a central concern of Democratic caucus-goers here. Mr. Scanlon agrees: "We need a candidate to beat George Bush."

And nowhere more than in the labor constituency is this sentiment held. So the debate within it is not so much which of the Democratic candidates is most pro-labor but which of them is the best bet to send the Republican incumbent packing in November.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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