- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Last week’s announcement by two major labor groups that they will support the presidentialbidof Howard Dean sent shock waves through Washington’s political community. The decision by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Service Employees InternationalUnion (SEIU) changes the complexion of this year’s Democratic primary process, but it also suggests shifting fault lines in the U.S. labor movement — changes that mayreverberate through America’s political culture.

Together, AFSCME and SEIU represent nearly a quarter of this country’s largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO. Their endorsement of Mr. Dean effectively blocks the AFL-CIO from officially backing a candidate during the 2004 Democratic presidential primary process. It also landed a body blow to the presidential campaign of Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who can no longer portray himself as “labor’s candidate” in the primary. Yet while these external political implications are significant, the changing inner dynamics of the American labor movement are underreported and less understood.

AFSCME and SEIU represent what Democratic political operatives considerthe”new unions,” compared to their older, more Rust Belt-oriented siblings like the United Auto Workers or the Teamsters. These new unions, compared to their Rust Belt compatriots, are more populated by women, more highly educated and growing in membership. For example, while a higher proportion of all union members are still male, AFSCME is now majority female in its membership. And unlike, auto or steel workers, the new union members are more likely to have secured some type of higher education — 36 percent of AFSCME members have college or post-graduate degrees.

What this fracturing means for the political clout of labor is unknown but potentially significant. Can labor successfully coalesce around a candidate once the party picks a nominee? In theory, yes, but Democratic operatives worry that this year’s fissure is caused by new internal dynamics in the labor movement that may make the healing process a little trickier. “This would have never happened under George Meany or Lane Kirkland,” one Democratic party insider with close ties to the labor movement said. These operatives worry that the strong personalities that orchestrated the AFSCME and SEIU endorsements of Mr. Dean might find it difficult to reverse course and enthusiastically back another nominee should the former Vermont governor fail to win the party’s nod. Alternatively, can the other unions now backing Mr. Gephardt quickly pivot and encourage their members to support Mr. Dean if he does well in the primaries? Never experiencing this type of early split, these strategists openly wonder if the AFL-CIO’s leadership will remain divided and politically weakened.

As the complexion of the labor movement changes, increasingly dominated by the new unions, strategists also wonder about the impact of this shift on the movement’s overall political clout. The electoral significance and behavior of the “old” unions is well understood and has been part of America’s political landscape for many years. Money and manpower were always valuable and effective parts of their electoral arsenal. This January, in the Iowa Caucuses, instead of backing one candidate or all Democrats, labor is split — new labor, representing Mr. Dean, will fight old labor, backing Mr. Gephardt. Will the newer unions have the same electoral acumen as the old? Moreover, as the newer unions take a greater leadership role in the overall labor movement, will they equal, surpass or fall short of the success labor has meant for Democrats for so many years?

Finally, what policies will the new service-oriented labor movement pursue? If the face of labor is changing, the policies it pursues are not far behind. The legislation old unions pursued centered on preserving and enhancing benefits for manufacturing jobs. Machinists, autoworkers and longshoremen, for example, not only share a different demographic profile, but they care about different public policies compared to the health care and government workers that populate AFSCME and SEIU. The union legislative agenda may shift from fighting manufacturing job flight and opposing free trade to supporting higher taxes and entitlement spending to satiate its appetite for growing government.

The early split within the labor community, its changing demographics and shifting policy preferences are all part of a major evolution in one of America’s most enduring and significant electoral institutions. Changes in the political behavior of labor unions could have a major impact on the Democraticnominating process and the 2004 general elections. The causes and consequences of these changes deserve close monitoring. They could lead to powerful aftershocks that reshape the American electoral landscape for many years to come.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide