The Boston Phoenix October 5 - 12, 2000


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 audience.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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