Will the unions choose the Democrat nominee?

Posted: Jun 12, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON--Time was, presidential nominations were dispensed by kingmakers in smoke-filled rooms. Today smoking is a scarlet sin and the democratization of the nominating process supposedly has made kingmakers extinct.

Not quite. Meet Gerald McEntee.

The yearnings of Democratic presidential candidates are focused on the leader of the 1.4 million members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. McEntee says ``it is going to be hard'' in 2004--it was impossible in 1992--for the entire AFL-CIO to get the required two-thirds of its federated unions to agree to endorse a candidate before the first nominating event, the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses.

But ``by late September, early October'' AFSCME will, he says, endorse a candidate by itself, as it did in 1992. That year most AFL-CIO leaders lost their liberal hearts to Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and his prairie populism. McEntee kept his eye on the prize--electability--and AFSCME endorsed Bill Clinton early.

Two-thirds support of a particular candidate by AFSCME's leadership is not required, but McEntee says that as a practical matter ``damn near'' two-thirds will be required. And achieved. That will resonate, beginning in Iowa, where AFSCME represents 28,000 workers, second only to the teachers union. In 2000 just 61,000 voters participated in the Iowa Democratic caucuses hotly contested by Al Gore and Bill Bradley.

First elected in 1981, McEntee is in his sixth four-year term leading the largest of the public employee unions, which are responsible for most of the growth sector of organized labor. In 1955 America's population was about 166 million, the civilian work force was 54.2 million and union membership was 17.9 million, which was 33 percent of the work force. Today the population is about 290 million, the civilian work force is about 122 million and union membership is 16.1 million, which is 13.2 percent of the work force. Last year union membership declined 280,000, largely because of layoffs in such heavily unionized industries as airlines, hotels and steel.

But 37.5 percent of government workers today are union members. In 1956 there were 915,000 unionized government workers. Today there are nearly 7.4 million. Public employee unions are government organized as an interest group. They want more government, and more of government to be susceptible to unionization. So they have a perennial interest in electing Democrats, and an especially intense interest in defeating the current president, whose tax cuts are impediments to government growth. And, as he showed in the organization of the new Department of Homeland Security, he is not bashful about limiting the powers of organized labor.

``No access!'' McEntee exclaims, referring to what he says labor experienced from the White House during the 12 years of the Reagan-Bush presidencies, 1981-1993. He says he entered the White House only once--when Lech Walesa, leader of Poland's Solidarity labor movement, was honored and insisted that American labor leaders be present.

So McEntee is spoiling for a fight. In 1992 union households cast 19 percent of the presidential vote. But lately, thanks to aggressive voter-turnout operations that Republicans successfully emulated in 2002, voting by union households has risen rapidly: In 2000, union households delivered about 26 percent of the turnout.

How does McEntee think Bush can be beaten? ``You have to get him partially or altogether out of the bubble he's been in since 9/11.'' Meaning? ``You have to have a campaign that is somewhat aggressive on the issue (of terrorism), that shakes him (Bush) out of his hammock.''

McEntee thinks John Kerry has the advantage of a distinguished war record. However, McEntee ruefully remembers that George McGovern was not protected by his fine World War II record: ``I was treasurer of McGovern's Pennsylvania campaign, and we raised $400.''

Dick Gephardt may have an advantage--with McEntee, if not with the Democratic nominating electorate's antiwar activists--because he burnished his national security credentials by helping to write and pass the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. And McEntee notes that Gephardt, who won the 1988 caucuses, ``has cooked pancakes in everybody's kitchen'' there.

Recently, McEntee says, ``I was driving on Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Ronald Reagan Building, and I thought, 'Where are you now that we really need you?' Bad as he (Reagan) was for our people, this crowd is way out there.'' The blunt-speaking McEntee, more perhaps than any other person, will pick the candidate for expelling ``this crowd.''

Trending Townhall Video