Unions' Party Loyalty Gives Clinton a Windfall Faced with Choice between Bush and Clinton, American Labor Unions Are Lining Up with the Democrat, with Some Misgivings

Article excerpt

FRESH from a rousing, sign-waving convention hall, where presidential candidate Bill Clinton has just delivered a major speech, Vito de Leonardis is upbeat.

Union teachers will support Mr. Clinton, he says. "They feel we have a chance this time."

Sandra Thompson, a fellow delegate here at the American Federation of Teachers convention, puts it another way: "Unions, anymore, are trying to pull together."

The mood in Pittsburgh reflects the broad sentiments among United States unions. The labor movement is having a semi-sweet election year.

For the first time in 12 years, union workers have a realistic shot at helping elect a Democrat to the White House. But it is not the Democrat that many unions wanted. The bitter realization is that organized labor is playing a diminished role in Democratic politics this year. Gone are the days of traditional Democrats like Walter Mondale. When he ran for president in 1984, reporters asked if he had a single policy difference with the AFL-CIO. Mr. Mondale couldn't think of any.

Clinton is different. He is not only more conservative on economic issues than most unions; he is not afraid to say so, labor observers say. Before the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, he promised to cut 100,000 federal jobs over eight years. That didn't affect the union directly; it does not represent federal workers. But it drew a worried letter from the American Federation of Government Employees, which does.

Here in Pittsburgh this week, Clinton acknowledged past differences with the American Federation of Teachers, which backed Clinton enthusiastically and early. "But you are going to know that every day I am going to get up with a burning desire to improve education in America," he said. Delegates cheered.

"I don't get any sense from the guy that he's anti-union," says Irving Bernstein, a respected labor historian and professor emeritus of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. "But he has made the calculation that when you're running for president, even as a Democrat, you don't have to pay special attention" to labor's issues.

If professional and white-collar unions have a few quibbles with Clinton, industrial unions are stuck with major policy differences: Clinton supports the North American Free Trade Agreement. Industrial unions do not. Clinton comes from a state with a "right-to-work" law (considered anti-union), and he has done little to change that. …