Labor brass seeks unity for ’08 pick

Spooked by their support for failed presidential candidates in 2004, labor leaders are forging a revamped presidential-endorsement process that takes a “bottom-up” approach, beginning with their members and focusing on solidarity.

In a conference call yesterday from Las Vegas, leaders of the largest labor unions acknowledged that the legacy of the fractured endorsement process in 2004 has renewed their commitment to unity and led to a heavy push toward a delayed and thorough endorsement process.

Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), spoke of his union’s endorsement of failed presidential candidate and current Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean early in the nominating process. As McEntee put it, the union had not done due diligence with its membership in selecting a candidate capable of winning.

“I think in the final analysis … we didn’t drill down far enough,” McEntee said. “We didn’t get down to the real activist level.”

In that vein, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney stressed that neither Dean nor former Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) ever had the two-thirds of his union’s support necessary to garner the AFL-CIO’s endorsement. In the end, he added, most members and affiliates did end up endorsing Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the general election.

In the wake of the split endorsements of 2004, the union leaders said the 2008 process will be more thorough. As part of that effort, they will ask state unions and affiliates to hold off on endorsements until the process is complete, possibly as soon as this fall.

The new process will also involve surveys and more candidate forums in communities and on the Web. The leaders said they are planning for an “intensive” six months of research and discussions with the candidates.

In addition, AFL-CIO’s executive council voted unanimously on a policy that urges its 54 national unions to hold their endorsements until the federation’s general board makes a decision on whether to endorse during the primary season.

“We’re not going to act as individual unions,” McEntee said. “We’re going to look at every candidate’s record, their position on the issues, the viability of their campaign and their success in motivating and inspiring our members throughout this process.”

The more deliberate process is an attempt to incorporate the true thoughts of members and “reveal substance, rather than some kind of glitch,” McEntee said.

Danny Thompson, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada AFL-CIO, said that his union will not make an endorsement ahead of the general board. Instead, it will focus on educating its members on the candidates and the newly important caucus system in the state.

The labor leaders also cited the lessons of 2006, praising the impact of the 13.6 million union members who “mobilized” in 32 states. These members plan to have an even bigger effect in 2008, the officials added.

“This level of activity by union members early in the process will lay the groundwork for the greatest involvement by working people ever in electing the president of the United States,” Sweeney said.

Political analyst Charlie Cook said labor’s goal represents a two-pronged strategy that is necessary to overcome some harsh new political realities.

“Labor’s move is both trying to be more unified and trying to [bring] their membership more into the endorsement process,” Cook said. “Their challenge is great because their membership is more diverse and has such radically different priorities. The shrinking manufacturing workers put trade as issue one, [but] public employees don’t care about trade and have different issues — and the lower-paid service employees have yet a third agenda.
“A candidate can be perfect for one group and a mismatch for one or both others,” added Cook.