AFL-CIO President John Sweeney pledged today that organized labor would finish the job it began in the last congressional elections and win back Democratic control of the House.
"We will clean out the House," Sweeney told the opening session of the federation's biennial convention. "That's a promise and a commitment I intend for us to keep."
To back up the pledge, the AFL-CIO has committed $46 million to a grass-roots mobilization effort that targets 35 congressional districts in 15 states. All the money will be spent on union voter mobilization and "educational" issue advertising in the targeted districts. The money will not go to either the candidates or the political parties.
Federation officials would not identify the targeted districts or the states, but according to one political strategist the states include Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, New Jersey, California and Georgia.
Later in the day, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) told a cheering convention audience, "We are going to win the House back, and I am going to be speaker of the House."
Although much of the political focus at the convention this week has been on labor's presidential endorsement, winning back control of the House for the Democrats is seen by the AFL-CIO leadership as the key to labor's future, if not survival.
Few labor leaders give the Democrats a realistic chance of recapturing the Senate, and the outlook for retaining the White House is anything but certain.
Labor plans to concentrate its campaign efforts on turning out union members in the targeted districts. Political strategists in the AFL-CIO said that when labor matched its files on people who actually voted in the mid-term congressional race two years ago with state voter lists, it discovered that union members voted at a 20 percent higher level than non-members.
"Our real strength here is our ability to mobilize union members," said Steve Rosenthal, AFL-CIO political director.
The convention will vote Wednesday to endorse Vice President Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination, although several major unions that do not want to endorse anyone yet are undecided about what to do when the ballot is taken.
Unions such as the Teamsters, the United Auto Workers, the United Steel Workers, the Service Employees International Union and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees have all said they are not prepared to endorse a presidential candidate. Both SEIU and HERE, however, have made it clear to Sweeney they will vote to endorse Gore if their votes are needed.
Under the convention rules, a candidate needs two-thirds of the votes cast, not two-thirds of the delegates. Abstentions are not counted as votes, ensuring Gore's victory.
Tony Coelho, Gore's campaign manager, applauded the AFL-CIO's decision to "come back home" and endorse Gore, whose relationship with labor goes back to his days in the House. "This is just the beginning as far as the Gore campaign is concerned," Coelho said.
Coelho said the vice president would be working hard to win the support of those unions that have not yet endorsed a presidential candidate. In the meantime, he said he welcomed the manpower in the field that labor's endorsement would bring to the campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire.
CAPTION: AFL-CIO President John Sweeney delivers the keynote speech at the labor federation's convention. "We will clean out the House," restoring a Democratic majority, he said.