Back to the future
by Seth Gitell
Although the union leadership is backing Gore, whose labor-fueled
get-out-the-vote campaign helped him crush Bill Bradley in the Michigan
primary, Republicans believe they can bleed away enough blue-collar support to
win Michigan for Bush. The Texas governor is already slicing into blue-collar
support in union families, which support Gore at only half the rate of union
members. (Goeas, the Republican pollster, suggests a variant on the
worker-to-worker program: "Maybe the program shouldn't be talk to another guy
you work with. Maybe it should be talk to your spouse at home.")
Moody of Labor Notes acknowledges that "it's not impossible that Bush
could take a bite out of the union vote." Clifford May, communications director
of the Republican National Committee (RNC), points out that "40 percent of the
union membership -- the rank and file -- vote Republican." He's hoping those
numbers are higher for Bush. And John Truscott, press secretary for Michigan's
Republican governor, John Engler, points out that Engler received 50 percent of
the union vote during the last election.
One Republican tactic that may play well in Detroit involves publicizing what
Gore wrote about the auto industry in his book Earth in the Balance. For
instance, Gore called for "$2-a-gallon gasoline, water-powered engines, and
doing away with gasoline," says Truscott, who describes Gore as "hostile" to
"the internal-combustion engine." Gore's environmental record will alienate
auto workers, Truscott and other Michigan Republicans say.
Bush certainly hasn't given up on the labor vote. Just last week he visited an
axle plant in Detroit. Truscott, in fact, describes Bush's strategy in Michigan
as "going right to the heart and soul" of labor. Truscott even goes so far as
to say that the UAW's paid holiday on Election Day may backfire -- sure, union
members will get to the polls, but they'll vote for Bush. That said, he still
criticizes the union for having negotiated the paid day off. "What Governor
Engler has said is that this is the largest corporate political contribution in
American history," he says. "When you add up all the salaries, this is more
than a hundred million dollars."
And if the anti-auto argument fails to sway blue-collar workers, as union
leaders predict it will? The RNC's Clifford May says the appeal of the GOP goes
beyond the narrow self-interest of the automobile industry. "I think a lot of
[blue-collar workers] want a fresh start," he says. "A lot of them want a
president they can trust and that tells them the truth. A lot of them would
like to be able to invest some of their Social Security money. A lot of them
feel strongly about defense and realize that Clinton and Gore have given
America's military a lot of commitments but scant resources. The Republican
Party defends certain principles that we think are important. The Democratic
Party defends certain key constituencies to whom it promises goodies."
One factor that may help Bush in Michigan is breakaway union support for Ralph
Nader, who made a fairly well-publicized visit to the state on Labor Day.
Although Nader is polling at a maximum of five percent in Michigan, several UAW
locals are organizing under the banner "Labor for Nader." But Hughes dismisses
the Nader factor as irrelevant. "We're dealing with people who are pretty
pragmatic -- they know it's going to be either Bush or Gore and it's pretty
clear who's better," he says. "Labor for Nader's pretty much an indulgence for
people who think there's no difference between Gore and Bush." Still, with the
election so close, even a token amount of union support for Nader could cut
against the vice-president.
Whichever way the labor vote goes, though, one thing is for sure: the
candidates will gain more by playing to a union hall than to a studio
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.
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