AFL-CIO Politico Talks Strategy for 2004

Criticizing Democratic campaigners for taking union support for granted in the most recent presidential and legislative elections, the AFL-CIO political director presented his organization’s new strategy for regaining political clout in the 2004 presidential election in the Barker Center for the Humanities yesterday evening.

Orienting candidates’ platforms to working families’ economic priorities while turning out greater percentages of eligible union voters to the polls will strengthen unions’ political influence, said Political Director Steve Rosenthal. He said this effort will also help the Democratic Party—which unions have traditionally supported—regain positions on the government’s legislative and executive branches.

His presentation, the first of four forums that the Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program will sponsor over the next month, assembled an audience of about 30 labor activists and specialists from throughout the United States.

Labor expert and Friendly Professor of Law Paul C. Weiler moderated the forum with Elaine Bernard, executive director of Harvard’s Trade Union Program.

Rosenthal suggested the failure of the Democratic Party to garner influence in the 2000 presidential and 2002 legislative elections was partially the result of poor efforts to align its campaign goals to the interests of union members.

“The labor movement has been supporting the Democrats for so long that they take us for granted,” he said.

“I’m not trying to say, ‘I told you so,’ but I told you so,” he said, explaining that labor officials had urged Democratic campaigners to take their interests more seriously throughout the past two campaigns.

Rosenthal emphasized the increasing influence of union voters over the past 10 years. Whereas 19 percent of all voters were union members in 1992, union voters accounted for 26 percent of all votes cast in the 2000 national election.

The number of non-union voters, by contrast, has declined consistently within each state over the same time period.

The majority of union members voted for Al Gore ’69 in the 2000 presidential elections, while the non-unionists supported George W. Bush, Rosenthal said.

“If you had taken away all the union votes for Gore, it wouldn’t have been a close election at all,” he said.

The AFL-CIO is working to ensure that a candidate sympathetic to its interests wins the next presidential election, he said.

“We are very, very focused on the 2004 race,” he said.

He said he is confident about the outcome of the election, because of the AFL-CIO’s demographically based strategy for ensuring union voter turnout.

The AFL-CIO’s projections suggest that 14 states will determine the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. If unions compel their members to vote through the AFL-CIO’s methods of listening to members’ priorities and recruiting voters, he said, the union-favored candidate will win by a broad margin.

“It’s not like threading a needle. There is going to be plenty of room for a Democrat to win,” Rosenthal said.

The AFL-CIO does not yet favor a specific presidential candidate in the 2004 presidential election, he said.

“To tell the truth, I don’t care who the Democratic nominee is. Any one of them would be so much better than having Bush in the White House, so my question would be ‘Who can win?’

“I would say the labor movement is in something of a crisis,” he added. “We can expect to see an attack on the rights and privileges that union workers have worked to gain over the past 50 years.”

In preparation for the next election, the AFL-CIO is about to launch a new program to mobilize black, Latino and women voters, who have been vastly underrepresented at the polls in past years.

The $20-40 million program, scheduled to be operational in selected states by the end of February, will identify issues important to these voters to help the AFL-CIO find candidates representing their interests.

Yet Rosenthal emphasized that the AFL-CIO is not only concerned with gaining political power.

“We’re helping to build a permanent structure in these places and not just win elections,” he said.

—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at heller@fas.harvard.edu.