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LABOR FLEXING POLITICAL MUSCLE

They were working late all week at a union office in Dunmore, Pa., and Maryjule Kapacs was very pleased.

"On Monday night," said Kapacs, president of a United Steelworkers unit, "we made 264 phone calls. We got 9 nos and 255 yeses." A "yes" is a vote for Al Gore. No, Gore won't carry Pennsylvania by 28-to-1. But if he does win, he'll owe a huge debt to Maryjule Kapacs and thousands of union activists like her.

This is the do-or-die election for the American labor movement. Every union leader - from the very top to the grass roots - knows it. This is the election in which organized labor, through a Gore victory, will prove itself to be the most potent grass-roots force in American politics. Or, if George W. Bush wins, the unions will face what they fear will be one of the most hostile administrations they've confronted in a century.

Even the unions most resistant to Gore have fallen in behind him. The last big holdout, the United Mine Workers, endorsed Gore Wednesday at a meeting in Charleston, W.Va. - although the union's own press release acknowledged that its leadership "had serious concerns about Vice President Gore's environmental stances." So Gore wrote Mine Workers' President Cecil Roberts promising "coal will play a critical role in our energy future."

Gore won the Teamsters' endorsement earlier this month, even though Teamsters President James Hoffa flirted with both Bush and Ralph Nader. Hoffa, who like other labor leaders denounced the Clinton-Gore administration's support for free trade, will likely be courted by the Republicans after the election in any event. He did not want to be the one union leader frozen out of a Gore White House.

The stakes are high for labor this year, not only because of the issues but also because this election marks the definitive test of the movement's four-year process of rebuilding its political prowess. In 1996, the AFL-CIO waged a high-stakes campaign of televised "issue ads." The campaign increased labor's visibility but produced fewer Democratic gains than the federation had hoped. So in 1998, labor shifted resources to "member-to-member" contact, including leafleting at plant gates and organizing phone banks.

The result was a large union turnout for Democrats, who made surprising midterm gains. Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO political director, said the unions concluded that business groups would always outspend labor, so traditional campaign spending was useless. Better to invest union money in organizing the one resource labor has in abundance: people.

And those people tend to live in the right places: this election's battleground states. In 1996, according to exit polls cited by Rosenthal, some 40 percent of Michigan voters came from households with at least one union member. The proportion was 34 percent in Ohio, 31 percent in Illinois, 30 percent in Wisconsin and 29 percent in Pennsylvania. Union mobilization may upend the traditional view that low turnout helps Republicans. Because union members are now more mobilized, says Rosenthal, a drop in turnout could increase labor's share of the electorate - and help Democrats.

The intensification of labor's political efforts is embodied in Pennsylvania by a new program at the Service Employees International Union. J. J. Johnston, the SEIU's state director, said 80 of its members have taken leave from their jobs and are being paid their salaries by the union to organize for the elections. Andy Stern, the president of the SEIU, says that Gore's strength among union members creates a new challenge: to translate support for Gore into backing for Democrats down the ticket, particularly in crucial Senate races here and in Michigan, Missouri, New York and Washington state. In all of them, he says, the Democratic candidates are polling behind Gore.

Nobody is more aware of how important the unions are to a Democratic victory than Democrats themselves.

"We'd be lost without them," says Tom O'Donnell, a Democratic consultant at the center of his party's effort to recapture the House of Representatives. "When you look across the political spectrum from right to left, nobody's been as effective as labor and nobody can match them. You didn't say that four or six years ago."

Washington Post Writers Group

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