The Boston Phoenix October 5 - 12, 2000


Back to the future


by Seth Gitell

DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST Henry Sheinkopf contends that the direction of the old Reagan coalition will define the election: if blue-collar industrial workers drift toward Bush, the Republicans will win. If Gore can capture their support -- as Clinton did in 1992 and '96 -- the Democrats will win.

Nowhere is the slugfest for the lunch-pail vote more evident than in Michigan. Michigan's Macomb County helped give rise to the term "Reagan Democrat" when many of its blue-collar residents voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. The latest polls show that the candidates are running in a dead heat. Will the labor vote make a difference?

"The main unions are all mobilizing for Gore," says Kim Moody, director of the union-activist publication Labor Notes. The AFL-CIO is spending $1 million per week on a television-ad campaign critical of Bush that will run in four key swing states: Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. The recent endorsement by Teamsters president James Hoffa gives Gore additional support in these states, in the form of enthusiastic grassroots workers. Bush, on the other hand, will not be helped as news of Cheney's labor record at Halliburton circulates across the Midwest (see "Cheney's Corporate Past," News and Features, September 22).

The organized-labor mobilization might work if it can translate into votes. Patrick McCarty, executive director of the Michigan UAW's community-action program, hopes to get 466,000 votes for Gore from among union members and retirees. And this year, McCarty has a secret weapon not available to union organizers in past presidential elections: November 7, Election Day, is a paid holiday for the UAW.

"It's a plus," says Tim Hughes, the legislative director of the Michigan AFL-CIO. "It gives people the day off so they've got no excuse not to vote. It frees up a ton of union activists to work on the polls and in the precincts on election days."

Union leadership is doing more than making sure people vote, however; it's working to ensure that once they're at the polls, people vote for Gore. It used to be that a union boss like Jimmy Hoffa could commit his support to a candidate and then deliver the votes in his union right down to the last man. But times have changed. For one thing, the social changes of the '60s -- particularly the widespread mistrust of authority resulting from Vietnam and Watergate -- altered union culture just as it changed every other institution in the United States. Now union leaders have to persuade workers to support the leadership's position on issues and candidates. (Ironically, it was just this dynamic that loosened the bonds enough for blue-collar workers to elect Reagan in 1980.) "They say, 'Just give us the facts,' " says Hughes. " 'Don't tell us who to vote for. We'll make up our own minds.' "

These social changes have been magnified by the information explosion of recent years, which allows people to get their news from many different sources. "Look at the world we live in," says McCarty. "People have the Internet. We're living in a life of information, information, information."

The UAW has met both these challenges with "worker to worker" programs, which union leaders hope will win the rank and file for Gore. One union member, called a "communicator," is assigned to 20 of his or her co-workers. It's the communicator's job to relay the union leadership's position on issues. (The program isn't used only in elections; worker-to-worker is used for many purposes, including explaining union policy to members.)

Now, the AFL-CIO is distributing fact sheets distinguishing between Gore and Bush. One asks "Who will fight for working families?" with a check mark next to a picture of Gore. The AFL-CIO information sheet also notes that Gore supports a patients' bill of rights, opposes "right to work" laws (which prevent companies from requiring workers to join the union), and backs better pension benefits. It points out that Bush vetoed a provision allowing individuals to sue HMOs, supports right-to-work legislation, and signed into law the largest reduction ever in the Texas teachers' fund.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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