More than a dozen international unions will airlift a combined several hundred full-time political organizers to Iowa, starting Friday, in the final push for Democratic presidential candidate Richard A. Gephardt before the Jan. 19 delegate-selection caucuses.
"They're coming in to work 24-seven, right up to caucus day," said Brett Voorhies, the Iowa state director of the Alliance for Economic Justice, a 17-union organization created in the fall to promote an agenda of jobs, health care, fair trade, and the candidacy of the Missouri congressman.
"There are several hundred coming in from different international unions, including iron workers, steel workers, Teamsters, laborers, even seafarers," said Voorhies, who, as national legislative and political mobilization coordinator of the United Steel Workers of America, has been working full time in Iowa since Labor Day with a staff that has grown to about 30.
Volunteers for other Democratic candidates are also pouring into Iowa for the organizational showdown. Labor, however, is the underpinning of Gephardt's campaign in the state, where traditionally about 30 percent of caucus attendees are from union households. Strong selling points are Gephardt's more than two decades as a labor champion in Congress and his national leadership of the drive to protect US jobs by requiring labor and environmental safeguards in trade agreements with foreign nations.
Funded by the member unions which also provide staff, the alliance is a freestanding organization. By law, it must operate independently of Gephardt's campaign. The alliance consists of most of the 21 internationals that have already endorsed Gephardt. The ad hoc group was established after AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, facing resistance from some larger unions, called off a meeting to consider an endorsement of Gephardt.
Gephardt has slipped behind Howard Dean in recent polls in Iowa, a must-win state if the Missourian is to advance deeper into the nomination process. Dean also has significant labor backing in the state from three international unions that have endorsed him, principally the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, a muscular force in Iowa politics. Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts has been endorsed by two smaller internationals.
The labor schism generally breaks down along the lines of industrial and trade unions that back Gephardt, and public and service employee unions that are with Dean.
Members and retirees in unions backing Gephardt total about 96,000 in Iowa, roughly four times the strength of Dean's unions in the state. But Bob Muehlenkamp, senior labor adviser to Dean's campaign, said supporters of the former Vermont governor are aggressively competing for the union vote. AFSCME will provide "at least 160 full-time people on the ground" in Iowa leading up to the caucuses, augmented by about 60 members of the painters' union, who will go to work next week, and 30 to 40 staff members from the Service Employees International Union, which is concentrated around Iowa City and the University of Iowa campus. Most of these union-paid troops are Iowans, but some are coming from out of state, Muehlkenkamp said.
Dean supporters are also courting members of unions that have not endorsed any candidate in the Democratic field, Muehlenkamp said. The nonaligned unions account for about 40 percent of dues-paying members of AFL-CIO affiliates in the Hawkeye State, Muehlenkamp estimated.
Most of the union activity is member to member.
"Steelworkers are contacting steelworkers, and Teamsters are contacting Teamsters," said Voorhies, adding that members are "more receptive" to that than to getting calls from various campaigns.