Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Labor and the Iowa Caucuses

Predictions of the demise of labor's electoral clout as a result of the Iowa caucuses are premature. Labor unions were successful yesterday in getting the vote out. 23% of Iowa caucus attendees were members of unions -- a disproportionately high figure compared with the 13.6% of Iowa workers who belong to unions.

(While the labor turnout amounted to one-third of caucus attendees in 2000, the overall turnout yesterday was over 60% higher than in 2000. This, in addition to the fact that labor density has fallen significantly in Iowa since 1999 probably means -- according to my calculations -- that labor turnout was equal to, or greater than the 2000 turnout.)

Where the unions didn't succeed was in selling one (or two) specific labor candidates-- because there weren't one (Gephardt) or two (Dean) candidates who stood head & shoulders above the others on issues important to labor. In fact, all the Democratic candidates had good labor positions.

Following the disastrous 1994 election, the labor movement finally realized that it was no longer adequate to just tell members who to vote for. They wanted to decide for themselves, based on the issues. The secret was to educate union members about the issues, tell them where each candidate stands, get them to the polls (by firing them up & addressing logistics), then hope like hell they'll put it all together and vote correctly.

And this is how labor has been successful lately -- especially in 2000. It didn't work so well in 2002, because members weren't fired up by the weak Democratic response to Bush & stayed home.

In Iowa yesterday, union members came out in large numbers, but made up their own minds, based on the information they had (much of it supplied by the unions), about who to vote for.

Contrary to the Iowa caucuses being a loss for labor, I think this bodes well for labor's influence in November as long as the education process goes well AND the Democratic candidate presents a real alternative. On the other hand, while the results of the Iowa caucuses were not necessarily bad for labor in general, they were bad for the individual unions that put a lot of resources into individual candidates, perhaps leaving AFSCME's Gerald W. McEntee (and SEIU's Andy Stern) the angriest men in America (to paraphrase Mark Schmitt at the Decembrist).

The real issue that the defeat of Dean and Gephardt in Iowa raises is a serious question about the advisability of committing significant resources to primary contests where there are a number of viable labor-friendly candidates. While it is important for unions to keep the pressure on the Democratic candidates to push for issues important to working people (health care, jobs, etc.), perhaps in this situation (where all the Democratic candidates are acceptable) it would have been better for unions to keep their powder dry until the Democratic dust settles, the stark differences between the Democratic and Republican candidates are more evident, and the real battle for the future of this country begins.