Occasional Reports, Notes and Commentaries on the Road to the White House
Bradley and Gore Vie for Labor Support
 by Eric M. Appleman
May 28, 1999--Vice President Al Gore says his support of organized labor is "in his bones." Former Sen. Bill Bradley, challenging Gore for the Democratic nomination, notes that he is "the only presidential candidate who has a union pension."  Appearances by Gore and Bradley at the Service Employees International Union's legislative and political action conference in Washington earlier this week show that both Democratic candidates are making a strong effort to win the support of organized labor. 

Differences in Tone and Style
While Gore and Bradley are clearly both supportive of labor, their speeches to the SEIU activists were quite different in tone.  This was perhaps most evident on the subject of health care. Gore, the "pragmatic idealist" spent some time on the patient's bill of rights and talked in general terms about working "for the day when all Americans have access to affordable health care."  Bradley painted in much broader strokes, identifying "health insurance for everyone in the United States of America" as his first of five priorities.  "Every child, every worker, as close to a hundred percent as you can get, go for it and achieve it," Bradley said. Later 

Speaking to reporters Bradley said he was dedicated "not to any kind of form, but to the goal, the objective of getting people covered." He said he would be announcing specific policies in September and October.  "I guarantee whatever I put out on health care, it will be like raw meat to a cage full of wolves," Bradley stated.

Of course, as a longshot, Bradley can afford to take some risks.  Such unequivocal stances may give him an edge in gaining the support of progressives, who place social justice issues at the top of their agendas.  For example, Bradley has won the backing of the most liberal member of the Senate, Paul Wellstone.  Whether he can pick up support from progressive elements in the labor movement remains to be seen. 

Although some observers have characterized Bradley as boring, he has a certain star quality and is able to draw from his experiences as a basketball player for a wealth of stories which help him establish a connection with his audience.  Gore more often recounts stories or jokes he has heard, and he at times seems prone to indulging in some fairly sharp partisan rhetoric.  "I am not about to let the Republican roll back labor rights," he declared, stating that, "If recent history is any guide, we can expect them to try to silence working familes, to try  to privatize Social Security, to try to drain away education funding with vouchers, to try to pass national right-to-work laws, to try to pass national paycheck deception, to try to weaken the NLRB." 

Gore: "I am pro-union, I am pro-worker, I am pro-organizing...in my bones."
Speaking to the SEIU activists, Vice President Gore said that his family "came out of a political awareness that had organized labor as the bedrock."  He noted that his father was Tennessee's first secretary of labor, and that a prominent labor activist was one of his babysitters when he was growing up. "I am pro-union, I am pro-worker, I am pro-organizing...in my bones," Gore stated. Gore highlighted the administration's accomplishments over the past seven years, starting with the strong economy and what that has meant for workers, he pointed to its defense against efforts to roll back labor rights, and he talked about ongoing and future objectives:

  • proposed 10 percent increase in funding for OSHA;
  • proposed 35 percent increase in enforcement in wage and hour laws;
  • proposed highest level of NLRB funding in history;
  • increase the minimum wage; and
  • "re-dedicate ourselves" to an equal day's pay for an equal day's work.
  • Bradley: "For nine years I was a shop steward."
    Bradley, speaking during lunch on Monday, warmed up the audience of SEIU activists with a couple of stories from his basketball days, drawing repeated laughter and applause. He recalled  fighting for a pension and for decent hotel and travel arrangements during his days on the Knicks.  "I am the only presidential candidate who has a union pension," he said.  Bradley lavished praise on the labor movement, pointing in particular to the SEIU's success earlier this year in organizing home health care workers in Los Angeles.  In terms of the labor movement, Bradley said:

  • workers fired for organizing should receive three times back pay and punitive damages;
  • companies that violate federal labor laws should not receive government contracts; and
  • after 21 years, it's time to take up labor law reform again.
  • Most Labor Endorsements to Come Later 
    Both Bradley and Gore addressed the AFL-CIO Executive Council at its meeting in Miami this February, however, the AFL-CIO's presidential endorsement has typically come fairly well into the primary season. In 1996, for example, the AFL-CIO endorsed Clinton-Gore for re-election at a special convention on March 25, 1996. 

    In addition to the AFL-CIO endorsement, each of the AFL-CIO's 72 national unions has its own endorsement procedure. The AFL-CIO has requested that the national unions hold off on endorsements until after its Executive Council meets in August.  In a February statement, the AFL-CIO Executive Council advised its constituent unions to engage in member education and seek member input. 

    Most of the member unions have held off; the SEIU is a case in point.  The union has set out four priorities: strengthen Social Security and Medicare, provide health care for all, guarantee freedom to join a union, and support efficient and accountable public services, not privatization.  On April 22 SEIU sent a questionnaire reflecting those priorities to all major Democratic and Republican candidates.  The form was due back on May 14; only Gore and Bradley responded.  The responses will be made available to members at worksites, in the SEIU magazine and on its website. 

    Another example of this type of approach, albeit from a union that is not part of the AFL-CIO, is the endorsement process of the 2.4 million member National Education Association. The leadership of the NEA's PAC, the NEA Fund for Children and Public Education, will meet on June 29 during the NEA's annual gathering, the Representative Assembly.  During that PAC council meeting, representatives will approve a questionnaire for distribution to the candidates, and the candidates will be invited to participate in an interview process with NEA President Bob Chase.  These interviews will likely take place in August or September.  The earliest a primary-only endorsement could occur would be at the PAC council's next meeting in the first part of October.  If the council acts, its recommendation must then be approved by the NEA's board of directors.

    Thus far only a couple of national member unions of the AFL-CIO have made endorsements, both for Gore.  On January 21 the International Association of Fire Fighters, representing 225,000 professional fire fighters and EMS personnel, formally endorsed Gore after the unanimous vote of its executive board.  Gore had spoken at the IAFF's legislative conference in March 1998.  At the time of the SEIU speech, IAFF members had already begun mobilizing for Gore; IAFF members wearing distinctive yellow IAFF Gore shirts greeted Gore during a visit to Atlanta (a photo of this happening was put at the top of the Gore 2000 website for a time).  On February 16 the 630,000-member Communications Workers of America announced its endorsement of Gore; according to a statement, polling of CWA members showed they "overwhelmingly favor Gore." 

    Trade Concerns
    Gore's support of NAFTA and the administration's trade policies will likely hurt him among some sectors of labor. For example, steelworkers argue their industry has been badly hurt by illegal foreign dumping.  In March United Steelworkers of America president George Becker accused the Clinton-Gore administration of "turning its back on American steelworkers and steel producers."  Meanwhile the Teamsters union has been very critical of NAFTA, specifically the provisions on trucking, which they argue will allow unsafe trucks from Mexico with drivers paid as little as $7 a day, to move freight on U.S. highways. 

    The trade issue might seem to create an opening for Bradley, but his positions are somewhat similar to Gore's.  Bradley has expressed some concerns about NAFTA, for example on labor issues, but speaking to the SEIU he acknowledged that, "I haven't always agreed with the labor movement on trade--I've said that forthrightly." 

    Workers at this January 1999 rally in Washington, DC did not have kind words for the Clinton-Gore administration.

    Gore's Speech to SEIU, May 23, 1999
    Bradley's Speech to SEIU, May 24, 1999


    Copyright 1999  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.