|LABOR'S HISTORICAL IMPACT|
October 12, 1999
Following a report on the AFL-CIO convention, the NewsHour's regular panel of historians explores labor's historical impact on presidential politics.
MARGARET WARNER: For some perspective on tomorrow's expected endorsement and on labor's involvement in American politics over the years, we turn to three NewsHour regulars: Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Tom Geoghegan, a labor lawyer and author in Chicago. Michael, both Gore and Bradley, as we just saw in Jeff's piece, spent considerable effort trying to influence tomorrow's endorsement vote. When did labor support first become a significant factor, a sort of coveted factor from the point of view of some politicians in American politics?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: In a big way, it was Franklin Roosevelt, not only in campaigns, but also getting his program, the New Deal, through Congress. There is a wonderful scene that gives you a bit of an idea, 1936, the great labor leader John L. Lewis came into the Oval Office to see Roosevelt. He had a check for $250,000 and a photographer. He wanted a photograph of this great moment. Roosevelt was terrified that he would be seen accepting this big check from a labor boss. He said, don't worry, John. No need to give me a check. I'll just call on you when any little need arises. The photographer was dismissed. Roosevelt that fall, drained his Lewis's Treasury of about $500,000. And it gives you a little bit of an idea because throughout the years since that time, especially Democrats who have run, have wanted labor's help and have gotten it in a very big way. But at the same time they worried a little bit about seeming too much in labor's embrace.
|Picking a candidate in primary season|
MARGARET WARNER: It's worth noting here, Haynes, that it has usually been just in the general election campaign.
HAYNES JOHNSON: That's right.
MARGARET WARNER: On behalf of Democrats, not getting into the primary.
HAYNES JOHNSON: That's right. That's a big change. If Mr. Gore gets this, it helps him in the primary process specifically because fewer voters are there. Labor has more people to organize, grass roots stuff. If they can turn them out, that's an if doesn't guarantee they can turn out their membership, which is another change in the labor political arena...but if they do get there and work in the primaries, it makes a big difference.
MARGARET WARNER: And Mondale... Walter Mondale -
HAYNES JOHNSON: That's right.
MARGARET WARNER: The only other one.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Not since 1984.
MARGARET WARNER: In a primary.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Not since 1984 in the primary process has labor endorsed a candidate who is running against another candidate in the same party.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Doris, have these endorsements panned out, paid off for the political figures who have won them?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think there's no question that in the olden days when politics was more a participant sport, rather than a spectator sport, what you got from labor was not only get out the vote, you got them to organize people at the rallies to make them feel that there was a certain momentum. Bumper stickers were important in those older days. You'd have bumper stickers all over the street cars - all over the buses. They had incredible canvassing devices; they could get their old retired members to man the phone banks and the money contributions. It's less so today because the whole presidential political arena has changed so that it's more of a spectator sport than a participant sport. But in the primary, it's more like that older participant thing, where getting out the votes, and getting people to canvas and making sure your guys get to the electoral booth is really important.
|A growing gap in political identity|
MARGARET WARNER: Tom Geoghegan, have there been elections in which you could say that labor support actually was decisive?
THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: In 1968, Humphrey almost won the presidential election with a very unpopular war in Vietnam, the cities burning, enormous instability and the left sitting out the election simply because labor showed up at the polls. Richard Nixon won by a whisker. There have been many, many, many elections, especially at the congressional level, in the days when labor was strong in the North and Midwest and union membership was concentrated there; where labor made the entire difference. Russ Feingold, in 1998, in his last election, 30 percent or about a third of the households in that election were union households. And they put him in.
MARGARET WARNER: Haynes, now, in presidential election, there's also a growing gap between union leadership and membership?
HAYNES JOHNSON: That's right. Absolutely.
MARGARET WARNER: When did that begin?
HAYNES JOHNSON: It really goes back to the time when Tom was just talking about when the divisions over the Vietnam War tore the country apart; you began to see then -- first you had labor union members going for George Wallace in the presidential prospect there, 1968, the segregationist candidate and so forth. Then you had going from there, with the Nixon era, you had people -- unions actually endorsing Richard Nixon, the Teamsters Union, and breaking from the foal and other unions defecting. And the leaders could not deliver their men, their manpower at that time.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Doris, would you say that was both over cultural issues and foreign policy issues? Was it not during the Cold War?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think that's right. I mean, certainly on social issues, some of the rank and file blue-collar workers turned away from the more progressive parts of the Democratic Party. And loyalty is a lesser thing nowadays. In the old days, when union members were part of a union, it was like their religion, it was like their identity; they would sing those songs -- solidarity forever. So when the union leaders told them something, that was something they felt more inclined to do. It's part of just the general modern culture right now, where people don't follow leaders. They're much more individual characters in all of these elections.
|The political weight of labor unions|
MARGARET WARNER: Michael, how much also do you think the political clout of unions has waned as its membership has declined, in other words, 35 percent in its heyday to less than 15 percent today?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That's right. It's not only Supreme Court Justices who read the election returns; Presidents are very much aware of this. There are fewer members. There's less money. There's less clout. The result is that even for a Democratic President, labor is much less in the entourage. Lyndon Johnson, when he became President, one of the first things he did was he began calling labor leader after labor leader not only to get their support in general for him as President and when he ran in 1964, but especially for things like the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, things he intended to do in power.
MARGARET WARNER: In other words, he thought they could help him deliver after he got elected?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. He felt that they should be very much at his side. Bill Clinton has been very different. You've had, during the last six and a half years, a president differing with labor on trade policy and often times, trying to paper over those differences.
MARGARET WARNER: Tom Geoghegan, do you see a reduced attentiveness to labor's concerns as a result of this declining membership relationship?
THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: Well, I'd like to register a dissent -
MARGARET WARNER: Please do.
THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: -- because I think as the voting rate has declined in the country, labor has become actually perversely a little more powerful. Like Christian Coalition groups, black churches, the percentage of union membership in the '98 election and in Clinton's election was around 23 percent. That's way out of proportion to union representation of the workforce. And the -- voting Democratic has gone up too. In the last election, over 70 percent, 71 percent of the union households that voted, voted Democratic.
MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about '98, not the presidential of '96?
THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: Well, presidential of '96 was high, too. It wasn't as high as 71 percent, but labor was incredibly important in the election of Bill Clinton in '96.
|Unions and the global economy|
HAYNES JOHNSON: But he's right about the one important point here - where the number of people who are voting is declining year by year in American politics. So if you have a group that is motivated and actually turns out disproportionately to the population, you still have a political force to reckon with.
MARGARET WARNER: But so, Doris, then, how do you explain that in this primary contest among the Democrats for the first time, there's really not a classic labor candidate, that is, both the candidates stand in opposition to labor on this huge issue of trade, and the global economy -- that whole basket of issues that we saw that labor leader talking about in Jeff's piece?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think what we've seen really in the last few decades is that Democratic politicians have felt they had a leeway to move apart from labor. I mean, we saw them starting to do that in the 1970's when they didn't even invite George Meeney to the Democratic National Convention - an incredible slap at him. He was so angry that he did not endorse anyone during that campaign. There was a sense that maybe labor was too much a part of the old establishment that the reformers felt. My own sense is that in the future, I agree with Tom, I think the Democratic Party is going to come more around to realizing that in this day and age, the intensity of getting out the vote will make up a lot for the fact that labor may have been declining on the overall scene, and that there's a reason why Gore has wanted this support so much. In a primary campaign, it could be absolutely critical.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That's absolutely right. But there's also a problem. Look at 1984, Walter Mondale. Labor basically pushed him over the finish line. If it hadn't endorsed Mondale in the spring, he probably would not have prevailed over Gary Hart. That turned out to be to some extent an albatross in the fall because Mondale looked as if he was a candidate for the labor bosses; that may be a problem for Al Gore.
MARGARET WARNER: But, Tom Geoghegan, on this issue about new Democrats and the global economy, can do you think we're going to see the Democratic leadership moving closer to the labor issue? Or is labor going to have to move closer to the Democratic leadership's position?
THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: Well, that's an interesting quandary. I think that labor is very cut up on the trade issue because each job lost is irreplaceable in terms of organizing. Labor's fundamental problem is not trade because countries that are much more unionized in Europe are much more open to the global economy or compete much more in the global economy. Its problem is that every time you lose a job, it's impossible under existing labor law to effectively organize people because employers can pick out the pro-union people and fire them with no effective legal remedy in place now. Labor's biggest problem is it doesn't have labor law reform so it can go out and organize. If it had that power, then the global economy issues would moderate in their importance to labor.
MARGARET WARNER: But Haynes, John Sweeney says he's going to increase labor's clout, he's going to increase labor's membership. I notice they're going to make available computers and Internet access at a discount to union members.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yeah. And this is something that's very interesting because labor has been behind. Big business, big labor -- the money, the ability to organize, to reach there electronically through the computer world and e-mail and so forth, labor was way behind in this kind of thing. Now they're getting into the game. And we'll see what happens in that. There's also something else. You have a new era of labor leadership from the old guard ...Doris was talking about George Meeney, these people who are in their 80's and 70's - have been around forever. Now you have the different changes, so it's all -- it's a different game now.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you. Tom Geoghegan and historians, all, thank you very much.