Vice President Gore collected the support of the nation's largest teachers union and a key federal union yesterday. Both organizations praised Gore for his leadership on issues they believe important to families and children.
The endorsements by the National Education Association (NEA), which has 2.5 million members, and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), with 75,000 members, reflected the mutual loyalty that exists between the vice president and the two unions as Gore's Democratic rival, Bill Bradley, has moved ahead in public opinion polls in several key states.
The Gore campaign hopes yesterday's endorsements--along with several others it has rolled out over the past several days--will help sway the AFL-CIO, an organization of 13 million members, which meets next week in Los Angeles to decide whether to make a presidential endorsement now.
The battle for labor's support has taken on enormous importance this fall for two reasons: Unions provide valuable foot soldiers in presidential campaigns and, locked in a close race, Bradley and Gore are eager to seize on any signs of strength.
For Gore, the stakes are particularly high. Although AFL-CIO backing was once considered a given, the Gore campaign is now concerned that the labor federation will not offer him its endorsement next week, a serious psychological blow to the struggling campaign. Reflecting that concern, Gore has enlisted House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)--each has strong ties to labor--to phone wavering labor officials. In addition, Tipper Gore will speak at an AFL-CIO rally today and Gore's top campaign officials are heading to Los Angeles to lobby.
Bradley, who often boasts of his years as a union representative while playing professional basketball, has also vigorously lobbied labor leaders and urged some big AFL-CIO unions to press for a delay of any endorsement. Working on Bradley's behalf is Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.), who is popular with labor.
"We think we've developed a good rapport with the AFL," said Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser. "We have always looked at this as something that was uphill, but we have made an aggressive case and we're continuing to make that case right now."
Yesterday's announcements followed an endorsement Tuesday from the American Federation of Teachers, with more than 1 million members, and pledges from a series of smaller, local unions. "Al Gore is going to work his heart out to earn organized labor's support," Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said yesterday.
At a Louisville labor hall Thursday night, Gore described himself as "pro-labor" and "pro-collective bargaining" as he courted votes. He accused "the Reagan-Bush crowd" of trying to "bust unions" during the 1980s and promised to veto anti-labor bills if elected president. Gore said he would warn congressional Republicans, "Don't try that anti-union stuff. Don't even think about it."
Yesterday, leaders of the two unions endorsing Gore said his loyalty was a factor in their decisions.
Treasury employees union president Colleen M. Kelley said, "Gore has really been a leader on issues that affect federal employees. We felt he deserved our support." The federal union praised Gore for promoting labor-management "partnerships" in government agencies, for moving the government toward "family friendly" employment practices and supporting efforts to make federal pay more competitive with the private sector.
NEA president Bob Chase said it would have been "inappropriate to back away" from Gore, who "has been particularly helpful to us in a whole host of areas as it relates to education and students." Chase said Gore had fought for expanded preschool and after-school programs, full funding for the Head Start program, smaller class sizes and stronger public schools. Gore's "respect for education employees has been very clear," he said.
Chase added, "It isn't as if Bill Bradley lost our recommendation, it's more that Al Gore won it."
Hauser called the teacher union endorsement "long expected," but he added, "We think we've got support from teachers around the country and will continue to talk to them throughout the campaign."
Chase and Kelley said the endorsements were made earlier than usual because so many presidential primaries will be held in the opening months of next year. Chase said the Gore campaign had not asked for an early endorsement, while Kelley said she was contacted "months ago" by Gore staff seeking her union's support.