Jerry Wurf, head of one of the first unions to endorse Jimmy Carter in 1976, called on organized labor yesterday to consider severing its ties with the Democratic Party in the 1980 presidential race.
In an apparent attempt to jar Presidential Carter into listening to labor's complaints about his policies, Wurf said his 1-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes (AFSCME) may support a Republican for president next year.
Expressing impatience also with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Wurf said Kennedy should either become a presidential candidate or rule himself out Kennedy could have AFSCME's support for the asking, he said, but added, "America needs a leader as president, not a man who is led to the presidency."
If neither party nominates a candidate satisfactory to organized labor, unions should "join with other progressive constituencies to organize a new party" that could "hold the balance of power" between the two major parties, as the New Democratic Party did in Canada's recent elections, Wurf said.
He made his comments in a speech just one day after he and 20 other civil and labor leaders discussed the economy and jobs with the president at Camp David.
Wurf said he wrote the speech before going to Camp David and made no changes after returning.
Wurf's speech to the National Press Club underscored the labor movement's intense frustration with Carter, and its apparent inability to do anything about the situation.
As of now, organized labor appears to be sliding off in all directions, although a number of unions are drifting toward Carter, claiming no other viable options.
Among major union presidents, the head of the machinists union is leading a draft-Kennedy drive, the leader of the service workers union is supporting California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., and a "Labor for Carter" committee has reportedly drawn tentative support from about a dozen unions, many of which remain sharply critical of Carter's policies. Few, if any, until Wurf, have suggested supporting a Republican, and some have firmly ruled it out.
Labor has constituted one of the mainstays of the Democratic Party for decades, splintering only in 1972, when the AFL-CIO stayed neutral and the Teamsters endorsed Richard M. Nixon over George McGovern. Moreover, the early support of Wurf and several other union leaders was important to Carter's capture of the Democratic nomination in 1976.
Wurf was counted on by some Labor-for-Carter organizers to join the group. Another union leader relied on by the White House, J. C. Turner of the Operating Engineers, told reporters after hearing Wurf's speech that labor might be drawn to a Republican like Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), "depending on who the Democrat was." Turner, a member of the Democratic National Committee, said he is uncommitted as of now.
In his speech, Wurf emphasized that Carter could still be "born-again politically" with organized labor by "keeping) the promises he made in 1976," such as delivering on tax reforms, aiding cities, protecting Social Security benefits and keeping natural gas and domestic oil price controls. "He can make a spectacular comeback, just as Harry Truman did in 1948," Wurf said.
Among Democratic alternatives to Carter, Vice President Mondale should be considered as well as Kennedy, said Wurf. But not Brown, he said, adding that Brown has "not been consistent on any issue except his own ambitions."
Among Republicans, Wurf spoke most favorably of Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.), who, he said, is "trying to talk sense to the Republican Party," which "may be his political obituary."
As for some of the others, he said, "If we could survive Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, then how much worse could Howard Baker or George Buch possibly be? Even in opposition to a president like John Connally, the Democrats in Congress might be forced to display more concern for low and middle-income Americans."
He said congressional Democrats have displayed more "courage and leadership" under Republican presidents, and added, "If the Democrats function responsibly as an opposition party and irresponsibly as a governing party, then maybe they belong in opposition again."
Saying the Democrats should not be allowed to "take us for granted," Wurf said, "If a responsible Republican, with a sound platform, emerges as a serious contender next year, then our union and other unions will not support a less adequate Democtat." Labor, he added, isn't "terrified by the prospect of the Democrats losing next year - if they deserve to lose." CAPTION: Picture, JERRY WURF . . . signal to the president