When then-frontrunner Howard Dean netted the endorsement of the huge SEIU and AFSCME unions in November, it was another nail in his rivals' coffins. After all, Dean's labor backing was second only to Dick Gephardt's, and the Iowa caucus, where organization is key, loomed.
Then Iowans voted.
Gephardt placed fourth and exited the race immediately. Dean came in third and never recovered, quitting the race Wednesday. And John Kerry — who at the time was supported by unions representing a mere 300,000 workers to Dean's 3 million — won, and is now poised to secure the Democratic nomination.
Now more unions are joining Kerry. But after the failure of the two candidates with the most union support, the question is whether organized labor will matter on Election Day.
After all, labor union membership has dwindled for decades: The U.S. Department of Labor says last year 12.9 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to a union, or roughly 16 million people. That was 369,000 fewer members than in 2002, and 4 million fewer than in 1983.
"I think that it's been many decades since trade union endorsements made a big difference," said Max Green, who wrote a book critical of unions' political strategy.
Unions might take heart in the fact that endorsements in general have meant fairly little this year. Al Gore and Bill Bradley, for example, also backed Dean, to little avail.
It might be that in 2004, "electability" matters more than who supports a candidate. In last week's Virginia primary, where Kerry triumphed, a CBS News exit poll identified "electability" as a key reason voters supported him, and more than half of union voters went for the Massachusetts senator.
But even if there are other reasons to explain their losses, Dean and Gephardt's failures may still worry organized labor because they could reflect a long-term erosion of union power.
"Unions are probably much weaker now that they were in the past," said Joel Rogers, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
At the same time, unions now boast "much more sophisticated operations" with better coordination between locals and sharper voter targeting. But those tactical improvements don't carry over into strategy, and that's one area where the 2004 race raises questions for labor.
SEIU and AFSCME apparently threw their support to Dean fairly early to force a quick end to the Democratic race, but Dean simply failed to attract very many votes. A union nod can help a candidate get over the top, but it can't work miracles.
"The problem with Dean is not that the union support was the kiss of death," Rogers said. "The problem was the campaign itself was not very well organized. They just weren't able to manage the massive input of union support."
The SEIU said it had 14,000 members in Wisconsin, along with 16 full-time staff members. They had sent 73,000 pieces of mail and made 25,000 phone calls by early February, but Dean still finished a distant third.
"Dean already had a ton of people and those tons of people in the end didn't help," Green said. "He wasn't short on people."
AFSCME ended its support for Dean before Wisconsin. The SEIU, as well as the smaller International Brotherhood of Painters, stuck with him. As Dean quit the race Wednesday, he thanked those two unions for "standing up for what is right."
Neither the SEIU nor AFSCME made any comment for this article. On Feb. 4, SEIU president Andy Stern said in a statement, "(Dean's) proven track record on health care and other issues important to working families is why SEIU's members decided to endorse Dr. Dean – and that is why they continue to stand strong with him now."
But other unions thought Gephardt was their man, and that meant the AFL-CIO split over which candidate to back, weakening labor's voice.
That's a recurring problem, because the labor movement is very federated, notes Rogers, with members ranging from blue-collar mechanics to low-wage service workers to white-collar government employees. It's often difficult to point to any one candidate as "labor's pick."
When labor splits its organizational power, unions have to rely on their influence on voters outside their ranks.
That influence is lower now than before, since fewer voters share union concerns, thanks to declining membership, the diffusion of workers from big plants into smaller offices and the rise of innovations like profit-sharing, which, according to Green, "blurs class distinctions" between workers and management.
Losing at the polls erodes labor's influence even further because the winners get to make and enforce labor rules.
Statistics do not show a decrease in labor law enforcement since President Bush took office. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration says in fiscal 2003 it cited more than 83,700 employers, an 8 percent increase over the previous year. The National Labor Relations Board issued 543 decisions in fiscal 2003, compared to 398 in fiscal 2000.
But under Mr. Bush, labor has lost battles over overtime rules and collective bargaining rights for employees of the Department of Homeland Security.
By executive orders, Mr. Bush revoked a Clinton-era order requiring federal agencies to form labor-management partnership councils, barred agencies from requiring contractors to enter agreements with unions and omitted several federal law enforcement departments from a labor-management relations program.
The president also required all government contractors to post a notice at job sites stating that, "employees cannot be required to join a union or maintain membership in a union in order to retain their jobs." He imposed 30-day cooling off periods to prevent strikes by mechanics at Northwest and United Airlines. And the Labor Department has demanded new, more detailed financial reporting from unions.
Some see the president's first four years as a preview to an all-out assault on unions if wins a second term in office. That makes the stakes in this election very high.
"For labor it really is a matter of life and death," Rogers said. "Because these people are serious."
By Jarrett Murphy