Nader Woos Unions, But Will they Abandon Gore?

By Justin Torres | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

Washington ( - After a joint press appearance Thursday, is the Teamster Union's flirtation with Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader likely to blossom into full-fledged political romance?

Don't hold your breath, say most observers.

Nader's appearance with Teamster head James Hoffa came after the union's executive board met with Nader to discuss his campaign. Hoffa called on the Commission on Presidential Debates to include Nader and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan in a series of three debates scheduled for this fall, and praised the Green party candidate for his union-friendly platform.

"Who wants to watch a debate between Al Gore and George Bush, anyway?," asked Hoffa. "That debate would never focus on labor standards, ruinous trade agreements, and the concerns of working families."

Hoffa also warned Democrat Al Gore against "taking labor for granted. . . . Al Gore cannot win the White House without union support," Hoffa said.

Nader chided the Democratic party for not being more responsive to labor concerns, saying, "Do you think the Republicans would treat their big business constituency this way?"

Since the House passed a bill normalizing trade relations with China in May, both the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers have drifted closer to Nader, who opposed the agreement and supports labor on striker's rights, repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, tighter workplace environmental standards and stricter import-export regulations.

After the vote on PNTR for China, Stephen Yokich, head of the powerful United Auto Workers union, a traditional Democrat stronghold that is situated in the key electoral state of Michigan, made it clear that Vice President Al Gore may have a tough time mobilizing rank and file industrial union members.

"One moment, presidential candidate Gore is telling the labor movement that he believes human rights, workers' rights, and environmental protections should be included in core trade agreements," Yokich said in a statement. "The next, Vice President Gore is holding hands with the profiteers of the world and singing the praises of the U.S.-China WTO accession agreement while lobbying for PNTR for China."

The rumblings may have serious consequences for Gore - two recent polls show Nader attracting enough Democratic support in states such as Oregon and Wisconsin to allow Bush a victory.

While it is clear that the UAW, the Teamsters and many other traditional unions are unhappy with Gore and the Democratic party and its support for PNTR, it is unclear whether that disappointment will manifest itself in votes for Nader - or against Democratic incumbents - at the ballot box. Hoffa himself stopped short of endorsing the Green party candidate, saying merely that the union "was in no hurry. . . . We want to make an informed decision after weighing all our options."

Hoffa also criticized AFL-CIO President John Sweeney for his early endorsement of Gore, claiming that it stripped "leverage that we could have used in the PNTR debate."

With Thursday's joint appearance, said Hoffa, "We want to get rid of this notion that labor has nowhere to go but the Democratic party."

Many analysts disagree with Hoffa. David Rohde, a professor at Michigan State University who has studied labor voting patterns, says it is "ridiculous" to suggest that rank-and-file labor members will come out in droves to support Nader, a prominent consumer advocate who is far to the left of most blue-collar union members on environmental issues and social issues - even if he does eventually nab the Teamster's endorsement.

"Union members are perfectly capable of making up their own minds, regardless of what the leadership tells them to do," said Rohde, who added that the fall elections will find most union voters where they have traditionally been - in the camp of congressional Democrats.

In fact, most observers seem to agree that the Teamsters' flirtation with Ralph Nader is aimed more at bringing Al Gore back into line on labor's issues than it is to boost the fortunes of the long-shot candidate.

"This has nothing to do with Ralph Nader; he'll be lucky to get one percent of the vote," said a labor activist in Washington. "This has to do with putting some fear into Al Gore."

But Nader himself raised a different scenario that would certainly spell trouble for the vice president: the prospect of millions of union voters staying home on Election Day, depressing the turnout of the Democratic base. According to Nader, this scenario was first raised by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt.

Nader told the press, "the last time union voters stayed home was in 1994, after the NAFTA vote, and looked what happened then: Republicans took the House."