The Reagan Democrats, the lunch pail Democrats, the hard hats.
Whatever you call them, there is a segment of the labor vote that can't be counted on to consistently vote the way their union bosses want them to — Democratic.
Organized labor spent $90 million in the 2000 election to turn out union households for Al Gore. But 37 percent cast their vote for George W. Bush, according to exit polls. One in four voters was a member of a union household in 2000 despite a shrinking membership of just 12.9 percent of the work forceaning unions in the country is the International Association of Fire Fighters (search) — one of two unions to endorse Kerry in the Democratic primaries.
About 44 percent of its members are Republican, about 40 percent are Democrats and the rest vote on both sides of the ballot. Many have military backgrounds. Most are extremely patriotic, and they're conservative on social issues.
"We will not engage in wedge issues," said its president, Harold Schaitberger. "We will not be talking about prayer in schools, about guns or pro-choice or pro-life. We will be talking about issues that affect their jobs and families."
That's where unions hope to win: on jobs, the economy, overtime pay, retirement security. Internal polls show about 61 percent of the union's 263,000 members support Kerry, Schaitberger said. He hopes to raise that to 64 percent, but it won't go much higher.
Among members, the nature of their job favors Bush. "There is this natural affinity to want to embrace the commander in chief, particularly in this time of national unrest and the Iraq conflict," Schaitberger said.
Some union members find Bush likable and strong, "with a nice family and good moral values," according to small groups of undecided union voters surveyed last spring. They didn't blame Bush for a weak economy and loss of jobs. His campaign also had made inroads by labeling Kerry as a flip-flopper.
Some labor leaders also are concerned about Kerry being pigeonholed by Republicans as a Massachusetts liberal out of touch with regular Americans. Their strategy? Guns. God. Guts.
They talk up his interest in hunting and in riding Harley Davidsons. He's a decorated Vietnam veteran who saved soldiers' lives.
"He's coming across as more mainstream," said Mike Mathis, political director for the Teamsters, with about 1.4 million members. For a swing union voter, "the key is trying to get that person to go vote for Kerry instead of staying home."
A chunk of the labor vote won't budge. George Hatfield, 43, of Columbus, Ind., is increasingly angry about what he says is labor's blind support for the Democratic Party.
"They're using my dues money to blast the president. I don't support abortion. I don't support homosexual rights. There are a lot of things they support that I don't," said Hatfield, a member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades Local 43 who has watched some of the Democratic National Convention from his home.
Hatfield, represented by the National Right to Work legal foundation, has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over union dues money being spent on Democratic politics. Three percent of his $21.49 hourly wage goes to the union.
"My money should be spent on my contract," he said. "It shouldn't be spent on Washington politics."
Ronald Reagan attracted union members like Hatfield. Bush hoped to duplicate that success. Teamsters President James P. Hoffa got a prominent seat at Bush's first State of the Union. The Service Employees International Union, the largest AFL-CIO union, threw a reception at the 2000 GOP convention. Hard-hat unions supported Bush's plan to drill for oil in Alaska's wildlife refuge. They embraced tariffs that the White House slapped on foreign steel imports — which were later scrapped.
But the White House also worked to kill ergonomics rules that labor supported. It yanked the collective bargaining rights of some federal workers. It rewrote labor laws on overtime pay, eliminating eligibility for tens of thousands.
The AFL-CIO is planning a huge rally Sept. 1 in New York during the Republican convention. Walks are being organized the following day, with a goal of knocking on 1 million doors with 25,000 union volunteers.
The challenge will be to channel labor leaders' feelings about Bush to the rank and file.
"I'm sure thousands voted for Bush," Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said of his 1.5 million members. "And now they're disenchanted in his programs and disappointed in his deceptive-type tactics. They see it and by god, they feel it everyday."