CHICAGO -- Loyalty, a virtue largely confined to the working class these days, was alive and well this week among the union presidents gathered for the AFL-CIO executive council meeting here. On Tuesday they not only pledged their support and funding to California Gov. Gray Davis in his effort to stave off his recall but warned other Democrats to stay out of the race. On Wednesday they scheduled a mid-October meeting at which it's a slightly better than even bet that they'll endorse Dick Gephardt for president.
Like Othello, America's labor leaders may be loving not wisely but too well. Gray Davis has never really been a labor favorite, and his reception by the executive council, according to several presidents who were in the closed meeting, was no more than coolly cordial. But the council opted to follow the lead of the AFL-CIO's California affiliate, which had vowed never to aid any Democrat with the temerity to enter the race to succeed Davis should the recall pass.
The electoral situation in California has grown so loony that Democrats can be forgiven for not knowing what strategy makes the most sense. Still, one longtime union political operative questioned the council's decision. "If there's not a popular Democrat who's running," the operative said, "just getting enough Democratic turnout to defeat the recall will be all the more difficult." But after the California Labor Federation had staked out its position, said one union president, "the executive council felt hemmed in. So we went Davis or bust."
The support for Dick Gephardt among many union leaders and members runs a good deal deeper than that for Davis -- or for any of Gephardt's presidential primary rivals. Gephardt has been a stand-up guy for workers on any number of issues, trade most particularly, and the evolution of his own position on trade tracks pretty closely that of the union movement as a whole. When Gephardt first sought the White House in 1988, his defense of workers buffeted by the global market was, like labor's, flatly nationalistic. Today, he's the one candidate who most explicitly sees managed trade as a way to bargain up living standards globally -- just as the AFL-CIO has become the clearest voice in international trade deliberations for a global mixed economy.
But some union presidents harbor doubts about Gephardt's electability. Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- and the very audible reality principle on all things political on the executive council -- made abundantly clear that his own union's endorsement calculus involved not just the candidates' records but their polling and fundraising, arenas in which Gephardt hasn't excelled.
There are, in fact, multiple reasons why the AFL-CIO might want to forgo a pre-primary endorsement. For one thing, the two candidates on whom it bestowed its endorsements -- Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000 -- were already heavy favorites to win the nomination when the federation endorsed them. Gephardt clearly is not, and even though union political action programs today are in much better shape than they were in Mondale's time, there's a good possibility the AFL-CIO will not be able to get its man nominated this time.
Second, the most important priority for American labor, all the union leaders agree, is defeating George W. Bush. To that end, the council authorized $45 million for the most extensive voter mobilization program labor has ever run, with hundreds of political staffers starting to organize in battleground states in the next couple of months. If the federation enrolls in the Gephardt column, however, those staffers will surely be shifted to primary states where the Democrats don't have a prayer in the general election. (The last time South Carolina was a battleground state for liberals was 1865, when Sherman burned it down.)
Third, a number of Gephardt's rivals have taken strong stances on such crucial issues as amending labor laws so that workers can try to organize free from the threat of being summarily sacked. Since John Sweeney took the helm at the AFL-CIO in 1995, labor has done a fair job of raising Democratic candidates' consciousness on such matters. During the federation-sponsored candidate debate on Tuesday night, for instance, Howard Dean turned a question on how to protect pensions into a stunning 90-second disquisition on the indispensability of unions and the right to organize, and on the many sins of Wal-Mart.
Indeed, if labor goes with Gephardt, it could be setting up something that no one in the party wants -- an old-fashioned intra-Democratic Party class war between Dean's largely middle-class legions and the unions' working-class activists. But unions are already embroiled in a class war against a president who they fear will use the political equivalent of weapons of mass destruction against them if he's reelected. That, I should think, would be class war aplenty.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the Prospect.
A version of this column originally appeared in The Washington Post.