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The Angriest Man in America

Quiz: Who's probably the most pissed-off guy in America tonight, looking at the Iowa caucus results? No, it's not Howard Dean or Joe Trippi. ("Angry? Moi?") Or Dick Gephardt or his campaign staff. Not that they're not mad, and sad.

The person who I suspect is steaming, raving, "who-got-me-into-this-f--'ing-mess" mad is...

Gerald McEntee of AFSCME. If you recall, back in November, McEntee joined SEIU's Andy Stern to provide the one-two punch of union endorsements to Dean, with the press noting that "AFSCME is the largest union in Iowa, SEIU the largest in New Hampshire." The two unions compete for public-sector members, and their leaders are fierce personal rivals also at odds over the direction of the labor movement. That they would team up to endorse Dean was, far more than Bradley, Gore or Tom Harkin, the signal that Dean had really accomplished something. It was certainly the moment when I started thinking about How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Howard Dean.

Yet McEntee was about as reluctant and cynical a Dean endorser as could be. From everything I know (mostly public info), all he wanted was a winner. He didn't think labor owed Gephardt an automatic endorsement unless Gephardt could show that he was likely to win the nomination and the election. First he wanted to endorse John Kerry. Then he wanted to endorse Wesley Clark. But at the end of the day, between pressure from his members, the fact that he couldn't really make the case for electability of any of the others, some mistakes by Clark in asking for the endorsement, Dean's persistence in asking, and the tactical value of the two largest unions representing public employees and health care workers endorsing together rather than splitting, he had nowhere to go but Dean.

The logic was fairly transparent. It was, "OK, it looks like Dean is the guy, and if he's the guy, we get behind him and hope for the best."

Every year, the labor movement tries to play its endorsements to the greatest advantage. It's the only sure hand labor has left in national politics. They understand that the greatest political clout would come from being united, and then, at the most critical time, endorsing a candidate who is good on all their issues, but above all can win the nomination and the election. A friend in the White House. And do it in a way that specifically can showcase the strength of labor in some key states, on behalf of that nominee. There are some differences of opinion about the relative weight to put on ideological compatibility vs. electability -- which is the essence of the difference between SEIU/Stern and AFSCME/McEntee -- but they all basically want to get as much bang out of their endorsement as possible. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Iowa was a huge setback for the way these two unions played their hand. Kerry won despite labor, not because of it, and the labor-backed candidates put together got fewer votes than Edwards. I have to confess, that's the biggest surprise to me. What I thought I learned about Iowa in 2000 was that it's not a farm state; it's a labor state. (Among Democrats, anyway.) And that people don't just show up at caucuses and vote for who they like; they are delivered to caucuses by an organized group, and labor has the greatest capacity of all organized groups. But when the two labor-backed candidates get only 28% combined, less than Edwards, that's a huge setback -- even if Dean can come back and win the nomination. It glaringly shows labor's weakness, even within the Democratic Party -- or, the failure of organized labor to be organized, since even union members went for Kerry.

The real cause of this, though, is probably the level of interest and enthusiasm in Iowa, which made the caucuses seem a little more like a primary. Had turnout been the same as in 2000, the share of the vote that was brought to the caucuses by organized labor would have been good for a lot more than 28%.

McEntee's got to be going crazy that he didn't go with his first instinct (Kerry) or his second instinct (Clark). Even if he'd endorsed Gephardt, it would have been fine -- Gephardt's the labor candidate, but once he's out, labor is free to endorse again, and pick a winner from the rest. One has to wonder whether AFSCME will put its full energy behind Dean in states like New York.

Other than that thought, I don't have a lot of insight into the Iowa results. As I said in my last post, I'm gratified that Edwards at least has a chance to be heard, and while I'm never going to be a gleeful Kerry supporter, hey, if he can get it together and fight back to win the nomination, then he'll be as good a candidate as anyone.

I'm very excited about all this. Glad to see that the State of the Union will be overshadowed by two sort-of-new faces on the Democratic side. And very glad that it feels like we're kind of back to normal rules. Whoever wins will be tested and proven. I'm not worried about negative attacks. Whoever is nominated will face the fiercest barrage in the fall, and I want to see someone who can handle it, not jump off message or start whining, but stand, fight, and make the case against Bush and for a different future.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 19, 2004 | Permalink


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I disagree that this was a defeat for labor, even if it was an embarassment for McEntee and Andy Stern, as well as the unions working for Gephardt.

But none of that means that this was a blow to labor. Labor unions were successful 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 turnout in 2000 was a higher percentage, as you say, the high general turnout this time around may have diluted labor's percentage (in addition to the fact that labor density has fallen significantly in Iowa since 1999.)

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, allthe 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. The secret was to educate union members about the issues, tell them where each candidate stands on the issues, get them to the polls (by firing them up & addressing logistics), then hoping like hell they'll put it all together & vote correctly.

And this is how labor has been successful lately -- especially in 2000. It didn't work so well in2002, 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. 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.

In other words, the Iowa results raise serious questions about the advisability of committing significant resources to primary contests where there are a number of viable labor-friendly candidates. Maybe in this situation it would have been better for unions to keep their powder dry until the Democratic dust settles and the differences between the Democratic and Republican candidates are more real.

And one thing about McEntee. Of course he, or anyone, wants to endorse the future winner (as long as he's labor-friendly), but that doesn't mean he throws caution aside. In 1992, McEntee was the first union leader to endorse Clinton, even though he wasn't close to being the front-runner, and there were other more labor-friendly candidates running (e.g. Harkin). But he thought Clinton was politically acceptable and he could beat Bush. Maybe he should have stuck with his guns with Kerry. Or, as I said above, save his money for the main event.

Posted by: Jordan Barab | Jan 20, 2004 5:34:18 PM

Jason's remarks seem very much on the mark. In light of the fact that no Iowa candidate stood head and shoulders above the others as a labor candidate, I wonder why unions rallied so strongly and unanimously (nearly) behind Gephardt (who I do not think was ever plausible as a national candidate). My surmise is that Gephardt was something of a sentimental and familiar resting place, from which the larger room could be scouted. Sitting out Iowa to see how things cleared out would have been a poorer option. Having giving due homage to Dick Gephardt (though wishing he'd made a better showing), organized labor can make a better decision about its next steps from inside the process.

Posted by: David | Jan 21, 2004 3:41:13 PM

I meant Jordan, of course. Sorry

Posted by: David | Jan 21, 2004 3:41:35 PM

Labor has lost, because the members and public at large harbors more than a little discontent toward labor leaders. If the unions have to work this hard on the ground at the local level to get their members to vote in a favorable manner for their own interests, it may be time to throw the shovel up and crawl out.

I visited the website of the IAM local 2063 when it was announced Maytag was heading south out of Newton, Iowa in Oct. 2002. The graphics shows a steam locomotive with the phrase "The Union Line" superimposed on it. More than a bit obsolete and misty-eyed is somebody's idea of union.

I love trains. Heck, I'm from Altoona, Pa. But anyone in charge of IAM2063's site needs to see where putting a picture of an 80 year-old dinosaur on it's masthead is not good marketing or argumentation. I don't care if it has eight big driving wheels and a bell. I don't care if every member of local 2063 is a train buff. Leave it for Johnny Cash.

It is not the particular job of unions to tell and/or educate their members on who or what to vote for. The public does not much appreciate puppets of any hue messing with the exercise of constitutional rights while on somebody else's dime. It does not appear "from the heart."

Ultimately, this deep involvement of the union in its members' constitutional rights brings about unwanted externalities into the leader/member relationship. The union is there at the members' behest. Playing around with members' free time can't be productive.

Unions must get out of the back rooms and into living rooms to regain legitimacy in the public eye. Why limit the reinforcement of labor ideals to the choir? I've heard of ICW ads being rejected by TV stations. That sounds like a juicy challenge to me.

Just a review of some basic American labor history would be a God-send. How about a nice mini-series based upon the 1936 book American Labor Struggles by Samuel Yellin?

"Bloody Ludlow."
"Steel 1919."

It's great reading and an eye-opening history nobody knows about. And let's not forget GM Sitdown or John L. Lewis!

Ken Burns is a cinch to beat. There's plenty of right-thinking homebrew documentary makers out there chomping at the bit to get some exposure and decent money. PBS rejects more good free documentary work than it airs Lawrence Welk.

Or how about "Rivethead" by Ben Hamper? I want to see Quality Cat "Howie Makem" get pelted in the head. I want to see an actual General Motors "Quality Drinking Glass" with his likeness silkscreened on the side. It was a bestseller just ten years ago and I still can't put it down.

"Nickel and Dimed" won't do it. Especially on stage it won't do it. In fact, nothing on the stage will do it. Most theatre is looked upon as publicly funded shouting matches for the tin-eared.

Unions need to get on the front lines for the minds of hearts of the people. This media-centered approach has more potential and likely less cost (in money and face-to-face emotion) than messing around on the ground in caucuses and primaries.

The only time the public hears about unions is when it involves sports. And as President Bush pointed out last night, sports figures are not always the best at getting the message across. In fact, I might think the advent of sports unions may have hastened the demise of good union work.

Just as corporations got heavy into philanthropy in the early 70s did sports arrive at the door of the unions? Unions got painted with the "gold-bricker" brush-- out in the green fields putting chrome on Impalas in the sunshine.

And to address the BIG problem-- how are we going to get corporations out of politics if we don't first get unions out? Can't have it both ways. Time to get over Taft-Hartley and get busy.

Posted by: Gary Eichelberger | Jan 21, 2004 8:10:17 PM


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