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Democrats Courting, but Will Big Labor Swoon?

America's fastest growing trade union has thrown its weight behind President Clinton and efforts by Democrats to rally organized workers in critical Midwestern swing states.

The 1.1-million strong Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is lending its gavel to Mr. Clinton and Democratic leaders who lambasted the Republicans.

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"You can be sure you have friends and allies in the SEIU now and always," SEIU President Andy Stern told Clinton, after his address via satellite at a convention in Chicago this week.

But despite support from leaders of major unions like the SEIU - America's third-biggest union - Democrats may not be able to count on labor's rank-and-file in the November election.

In the past two congressional elections, more than 1 in 3 households with at least one unionized voter have backed Republicans, according to statistics from the National Election Studies at the University of Michigan's Center for Political Studies in Ann Arbor. The trend - foreshadowed by a seismic break of union households from the Democratic Party in 1968 - will be difficult to reverse, labor experts contend.

This fall's vote will be a crucial test not only for the strength of the country's 13 million-member labor movement (which represents only 10 percent of the private-sector work force), but also the political leanings of grass-roots labor.

In order to rebuild the foundation for their traditional alliance, union and Democratic Party leaders would have to revive public confidence in the ability of government and trade unions to efficiently improve the welfare of American workers. Otherwise, a large percentage of labor will probably continue to embrace the Republicans and their message of lower taxes and smaller government.

"The labor movement has not done a good job in aggressively educating workers and showing that taxes are necessary to ensure the basic welfare of working Americans," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Organized labor could wield greater leverage this year than in past elections. Much of the debate in the 1996 campaign has centered on issues that are rich fodder for the labor movement, including stagnant wages, a sense of job insecurity, and a widening income disparity between leading executives and ordinary workers.

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"Not only are economic conditions today ripe for organized labor, but the labor movement seems to be seizing the moment," says Daniel Cornfield, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

The newly elected leaders of the nation's umbrella labor federation, the AFL-CIO, have pledged to revitalize trade unionism largely through renewed militancy, stepped up organizing, and aggressive politicking.

"The issues are breaking our way, momentum is breaking our way, and the American people are coming our way," House Minority Whip David Bonior of Michigan told the convention.

The Democrats are also apparently interested in the SEIU (which Sweeney formerly headed) because its activist leadership and diverse membership is deemed a model for organized labor. Among SEIU's members, 52 percent are women and 25 percent are members of minorities.

Under Sweeney, the AFL-CIO has again embraced the Democrats as part of its effort to revivify union power in Congress.

The federation plans to spend $35 million in 75 congressional districts where it believes Republicans are most vulnerable to a Democratic challenger. In reply, the GOP says the federation has broken election laws by using workers' money. The Republicans have filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission.

Judging from recent voting patterns, many unionized workers would have cause to complain about the federation's Democratic tilt. In 1992 and 1994, 34 percent and 39 percent of voters in union households voted Republican respectively. In contrast, since 1952 the Republicans have won an average of 32 percent of the union household vote in congressional elections, according to the National Election Studies.

Although the delegates here largely favored the Democrats over the GOP, they expressed resentment over the Democrats' failure to sufficiently aid labor. They noted that Democrats did not head off the North American Free Trade Agreement and win a ban on the hire of replacements for striking workers. Many of the workers were eager to consider independent candidates.

"The average union person does not want to believe that there will always be just two choices in political parties," says Margaret Dean, leader of a Los Angeles local of the California State Employees' Association, an SEIU affiliate.

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