Solidarity Man

On April 3, at an unpublicized strategy meeting, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack assembled AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, AFSCME president Gerry McEntee, and several other senior labor leaders with officials of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), including Clinton administration veteran and DLC president Bruce Reed. Vilsack, the current DLC chairman, encouraged the two factions to stop sniping and start collaborating. People around the table committed to a long-term process of detente. Then Vilsack asked each side what it wanted from the other. One of the union presidents said the DLC should support “card check,” the process whereby a majority of employees at any workplace can sign union cards and form an officially recognized union. (It's one of the labor movement's top legislative priorities, co-sponsored by 43 senators and 216 members of the House.) The DLC people, including Reed, agreed that this was a core Democratic position that the group could endorse. (DLC founder Al From was away on other business and did not attend the meeting.)

Card check is in effect in Canada. Under current U.S. law, however, even after a union collects a majority of cards, it then has to win an election. Businesses use the period between the card certification and the election to harass or fire now-exposed pro-union employees. A famous study by economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff calculated that something like one worker in 20 gets fired for signing a union card. Penalties are small, and the appeals process is attenuated. Fired workers seldom get their jobs back. Card check short-circuits all this mischief. And DLC support would send a serious signal that New Democrats recognize the value of unions, and make card check a real possibility in a Democratic administration.

What's Vilsack up to? After two terms as a popular governor, he is stepping down this year and seriously considering a run for president. In a crowded second tier of candidates, Vilsack could vault into the first tier not only on the proposition that he gets elected in a middle-America swing state. He's the rare contender admired by both New Democrats and the labor movement.

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Tom Vilsack has been very good to us,” Gerry McEntee says. Last year, McEntee asked the Iowa governor for a notable favor. Iowa's home-care workers, most of whom depended on reimbursements of public dollars, were paid very low wages and could not be unionized. Iowa, like most states, treated each of them as an independent contractor. Home-care workers -- mostly women, many of them immigrants -- averaged wages of about $9.70 an hour, with no benefits, and they had to pay both the employee and employer share of payroll taxes. As independent contractors, child-care workers were paid a gross annual income of $14,709, but because none of their costs were covered their median net take-home pay was just $5,259, or only $100 a week.

McEntee wanted Vilsack to emulate an idea successfully pioneered in California: Change the rules so that the home-care and child-care workers would be treated as state employees for bargaining purposes. Then let the union organize them, and push for higher wages. Yes, it would cost the state more money, but more satisfied and professionalized workers would lead to better care, lower turnover, and more satisfaction for parents and patients. And isn't the Democratic Party supposed to be about high-quality social services and raising wages for the lowest paid workers?

Vilsack liked the idea, but he didn't have the votes in the divided Iowa Legislature to change the workers' status. AFSCME pointed out, correctly, that the governor could make the change by executive order. To McEntee's delight, Vilsack did, taking something of a political risk when he issued the order last January. AFSCME now has another 14,000 members in Iowa, and wages for Iowa's home-care and child-care workers are rising.

If this were just another liberal Democratic governor strengthening the public sector and social services via a close alliance with organized labor, it would be a dog-bites-man story. But it's a rather unusual move for a DLC stalwart.

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The second tier of undeclared presidential candidates is cluttered, to say the least. It also includes other incumbent or former moderate governors such as Virginia's Mark Warner, Evan Bayh of Indiana (now a senator), and Bill Richardson of New Mexico, plus Senate veterans Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and John Edwards of North Carolina. Of this contingent, Vilsack is probably the least well-known. (For current purposes, let's consider Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, and perhaps Al Gore the first tier.) I recall our colleague Robert Reich telling a roomful of Democratic Party activists a few years ago that the guy who should get the Democratic nomination was someone named Tom Vilsack. Half the room had never heard of him.

In fact, Vilsack, 55, has been a popular and highly effective Democratic governor in a state that teeters between the parties at the presidential level, with one conservative Republican (Chuck Grassley) and one liberal Democrat (Tom Harkin) in the Senate, a split House delegation and divided state legislature. Vilsack, whose state has enviably low unemployment and stable public finances, was widely reported to be Kerry's second or third choice for running mate after Edwards. Iowa is not just a bellwether; it's the place where the nomination sweepstakes officially begins, with the Iowa precinct caucuses.

Of the other non-Hillary candidates unofficially in the race, Warner is the business Democrat unembarrassed by his religious faith who can tame a Republican legislature, neutralize social issues, rebuild his state party, and raise taxes in a red state. Edwards is the culturally reassuring southern populist who cares about poverty. Richardson is the one who combines foreign expertise from service at the United Nations and domestic experience in the Clinton cabinet with being a swing-state governor and a leading Hispanic. And Bayh has been elected both governor and senator in one of the reddest states, and is beloved by Democratic defense hawks. In this over-full field, Vilsack offers himself as the uniter. In addition to a Clintonesque ability to speak in whole sentences without notes, a log-cabin resume (he was orphaned at birth and raised by adoptive parents), and an innovative, policy-rich and scandal-free administration, Vilsack is the heartland liberal who can talk like a New Democrat, not unlike the early Bill Clinton.

Can he succeed? Both labor and DLC sources insist that this process is serious. “While the DLC and labor have had our differences,” says the group's Reed, “there's a lot more that we have in common, especially as we've suffered together through this administration. Vilsack wants to expand this bridge building. There's increasing agreement on the Democratic side that we need a much more serious opportunity agenda and a tax code geared to helping ordinary people get ahead, not just for capital, which is already doing so well in the global economy.”

Brave words, but does the DLC really include a leading role for the labor movement? As we go to press, there is nothing on the DLC's Web site or magazine to indicate support for card check, nor any recent material suggesting enthusiasm for the labor movement. In fact, the most recent substantive entry on the DLC site about unions is from July 2001, urging labor to embrace the new economy by supporting workplace learning.

Vilsack's spokesman, Rodell Mollineau, confirms guardedly that the meeting took place and that the governor is indeed seeking to play this bridging role, but is not ready to go public. He offers to schedule an interview -- in September. We await further developments. If Vilsack can indeed get business-oriented New Democrats and the labor movement to work together at more than a superficial level, he could get himself elevated to the first tier.

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