Unions helped Dick Gephardt win the Iowa Democratic caucus in 1988, but political supporters of the veteran lawmaker are uneasy about his chances in next year's presidential contest.
Sixteen years ago, Gephardt won the caucus by telling Iowans he was a regular guy who understood that farmers and workers were hurting. He won the backing of the state's behemoth United Auto Workers union by attacking the influence of overseas automakers.
Now that Gephardt has formally entered the 2004 race and is making his first swing through crucial Iowa, the Missouri congressman and former House Democratic leader is trying to build a coalition of labor interests more aligned with the concerns of today's workers while keeping longtime supporters happy.
"This a different campaign for a different office — not Congress — and we are going to aggressively go and seek their support," a senior Gephardt adviser said of outreach to unions.
That is in part because the character and demographics of labor unions in Iowa have changed since 1988, even as unions continue to exercise disproportionate influence in the party's nominating contests.
"The Quad Cities … area used to be called the farm-implement capital of the world because every [town] had jobs in manufacturing. Now, it's not," said Ken Golden, a spokesman for John Deere, the farm and construction equipment company.
By contrast, some of the public employees unions, like the state branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers, have almost doubled in size. And many service unions, like groups representing teachers, remain somewhat insulated from short-term economic downturns.
Because government, schools and hospitals can't be exported to other countries, their unions aren't terribly worried about trade, which was Gephardt's signature issue in 1988 and about which he talked at length when he announced his presidential candidacy.
"The blue-collar unions, which have faced all those issues that Gephardt appeals to, have declined," said Hugh Winebrenner, a historian of Iowa politics.
Today, health-care unions, constellations of clerical employees, teachers and government workers form a growing proportion of the union electorate. And at least one other top-tier candidate, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, regularly touts his near-perfect alliance with those group's interests. While most union leaders remained opposed to NAFTA, they acknowledge that their priorities have changed for the moment.
The Still Mighty UAW
The UAW remains mighty in Iowa politics. It is the largest industrial union in the Midwest and its retired employees are fiercely loyal to its political prerogatives.
But the UAW, angering many of its old hands, professes to remain neutral because other candidates in the race, notably Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, have accumulated as many gold medals as Gephardt.
"There is a feeling that's not in particular related to Gephardt, that candidates often take labor's vote for granted," said Dan Holub, director of the labor program at the University of Iowa. "If you hold back in terms of your endorsement, it sends a message that you need to listen to us."
Chuck Gifford, a Gephardt supporter who ran UAW's ground operation in 1988, said he is frustrated that current labor leaders want to audition the new candidates at the expense of building momentum for a reliable a support.