by Walter Brasch
Don’t expect any labor union to endorse John McCain for president in the general election. The wounds from the Bush–Cheney Administration are just too deep. But, their reasons aren’t because of social justice issues that once pervaded the labor movement, but on bread-and-butter issues that have dominated unions the past five decades.
“Our economy is in crisis after years of failed Bush Administration policies that Sen. McCain has adopted as his own,” says Karen Ackerman, AFL-CIO political director. McCain, says Steve Smith, AFL-CIO senior media outreach specialist, “assails working families from worker health care and safety to trade policies.” McCain, in agreement with Bush, has voted against protecting overtime pay and for trade deals that consistently send American jobs off-shore, often to countries where sweat shop labor is common. McCain has also voted against health insurance for children and worker safety and health. American labor also opposes his votes to privatize Social Security.
McCain, who has cultivated a media image as a straight-shooting maverick, during the past seven years supported Bush 89 percent of the time, with a record high of 95 percent support last year, according to data published in the Congressional Quarterly. The only reason McCain “has some appeal to working class voters,” says Smith, “is because they haven’t had a chance to learn about his policies.”
The 56-union federation, which represents about 10 million workers, intends to change that perception. It has developed a $53.4 million education campaign, largest in its history, to give its members information about McCain’s policies. The “McCain Revealed” campaign includes more than 425,000 flyers, a massive door-to-door canvas on May 17, a strong worker presence at all McCain events, and a website (www.mccainrevealed.org) with information not only about McCain, but also about the political beliefs of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Ron Paul. The AFL-CIO itself has not endorsed any candidate—two-thirds of its unions must endorse a specific candidate for the federation to make an endorsement—but several member unions have already supported candidates.
Hillary Clinton has endorsements from 12 major national unions, representing about 4.9 million members. Lined up behind the New York senator are the Amalgamated Transit Union; American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; American Federation of Teachers; International Alliance of Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians and Allied Crafts; International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers; International Union of Painters and Allied Trades; National Association of Letter Carriers; Office and Professional Employees International Union; Sheet Metal Workers International Association; United Farm Workers; and the United Transportation Union.
Although Barack Obama has endorsements from only seven major unions— with most endorsements coming after the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday election that pushed him into both popular vote and delegate leads—they represent about 6.3 million members. Only the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Transport Workers Union, and the United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters are affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Obama’s other support comes from powerful independent unions—the 1.3 million member United Food and Commercial Workers Union; the 1.9 million member Service Employees International Union; the 500,000 member Unite Here, which represents workers primarily in the hospitality, gaming, textile, foods service, and laundry industries; and the 1.4 million member International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The Teamsters’ endorsement may seem unusual. Obama’s support among college-educated youth, affluent professionals, and liberals is a contrast to the working blue-collar class, a large number who are conservative Democrats or Reagan Democrats that is the core of the Teamsters’ membership. Seldom has the union supported liberals, and would be more inclined to support McCain. During its 28 year expulsion from the AFL-CIO (1957–1985), the Teamsters endorsed Richard Nixon in 1972, the year after he pardoned Jimmy Hoffa. The Teamsters that year were one of only three unions to endorse Nixon. However, many unions didn’t endorse anyone that year, a slap at Democratic policies that were pushing for stronger integration of minorities within the largely White male-dominated unions, and at George McGovern, the party’s anti-war nominee who was seen as too liberal for the rank-and-file membership. The unions also had learned during the first term of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration that it was beneficial to have a friend in the White House; later presidents and front-runners, even if they weren’t labor-friendly, were able to exploit this strategy. The Teamsters also supported Ronald Reagan, who went from being a liberal Democrat and president of the Screen Actors Guild to being a thorn in labor’s side. Not satisfied with being bruised by anti-labor policies, the Teamsters then supported Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush. Although most unions supported Al Gore in 2000, the Teamsters gave only lukewarm assistance, and then cozied up to George W. Bush and his decidedly anti-union policies after the election.
For the 2008 election, the Teamsters’ Galen Munroe says, “We felt that Sen. Obama was the best choice.” He would not give specific reasons why Obama was the “best choice.” However, the union’s refusal to support Hillary Clinton could be a reaction to fall-out from Bill Clinton’s support of NAFTA as well as a feeling that he didn’t adequately keep the Teamsters close enough during his eight-year presidency.
Not endorsing either Clinton or Obama, but expected to endorse whoever becomes the party’s nominee, are several unions that had endorsed Christopher Dodd (International Association of Firefighters) or John Edwards (the United Steelworkers, United Mine Workers, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters; the Transport Workers Union had endorsed Edwards prior to switching to Clinton after Edwards dropped out of the race). Edwards and Dennis Kucinich were probably labor’s strongest ally.
The National Education Association, with one-third of its 3.2 million members Republicans, will probably endorse a Democrat by the general election. However, the day after Super Tuesday, NEA president Reg Weaver said that neither Obama nor Clinton “has made the case that would earn them the Association's recommendation.” Also holding off their endorsements are the Communications Workers of America, with about 700,000 members, and the United Auto Workers, which represents about 1.4 million active and retired workers. The only Republican to have received an endorsement from a major trade union was Mike Huckabee, who received the support of the International Association of Machinists, which also endorsed Clinton in the primaries.
The progressive militancy of the unions had begun deteriorating in the early 1950s, decimated by the anti-Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era. The result was a nation—and most of the labor force and unions—turning more conservative. Unions began justifying their support for what they saw as labor-friendly Republicans, while withholding support for worker-friendly liberal Democrats.
Hopefully, the anti-McCain education campaign of organized labor, combined with strong support for either Obama or Clinton, both of them liberal and worker-friendly, will finally remove the smear that unions slathered upon themselves and lead to a renewed energy for not only bread-and-butter issues but for social justice as well.
[Walter Brasch, professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University and president of the Pennsylvania Press Club, has covered eight presidential elections. His latest book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush, available through amazon.com]