In a major departure from its political stance of four years ago, the AFL-CIO announced Tuesday that it will not endorse a presidential candidate before the primaries begin next year.
Lane Kirkland, president of the 13-million-member labor federation, said that union members were not close to achieving a consensus on a candidate.
"Our rules say we have to have a two-thirds majority to endorse. We don't have it," Kirkland said. "The field is wide open, and support is scattered among the various candidates," eliminating the possibility of an endorsement at the federation's biennial convention in October.
In October, 1983, the AFL-CIO overwhelmingly endorsed former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, who went on to become the Democratic nominee. However, Mondale was attacked by his rivals, Sens. Gary Hart of Colorado and John Glenn of Ohio, as the captive of a "special interest," even though they had sought the endorsement themselves.
Kirkland said it was still possible that the federation might endorse a candidate after the early caucus and primary tests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The federation's 35-member executive council adopted a resolution Tuesday calling on the 89 affiliated unions of the AFL-CIO not to back any candidate until the federation makes an endorsement. Kirkland has urged union presidents to stand fast in hopes of forging labor unity down the road.
However, Kirkland said the AFL-CIO would encourage union members to run as delegates for candidates in the hope of maximizing labor's strength at the Democratic National Convention.
The AFL-CIO traditionally has not played a major role in Republican politics and was not expected to back a Republican candidate, even though the federation invited Republican candidates to join Democrats in competing for labor support through videotaped and written presentations.
Phil Sparks, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that five of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO were on the verge of forming a coalition to set up labor delegate slates. A similar effort in the 1976 campaign resulted in the election of more than 700 union delegates to the Democratic convention, a record at that time.
The unions in this year's coalition will be the government employees, the Communications Workers of America, the International Assn. of Machinists, the United Auto Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Kirkland's announcement had been expected. For the last several weeks, union officers have said that formal and informal polls of their members showed them deeply divided on who the Democratic nominee ought to be.
Support for Jackson
The 1.3-million-member Food and Commercial Workers, the largest AFL-CIO affiliate, disclosed last week that the Rev. Jesse Jackson was the only Democratic candidate who got more than 10% in a poll of 1,300 of members in July. Union spokesman Al Zack said he would not disclose percentages for Jackson or the other six Democrats who were in the poll. (Vice President George Bush was the only Republican "in double figures" in the same poll.)
It was unclear what if any impact the AFL-CIO's decision will have on the presidential race. "I don't know any winners or losers" as a result of the decision, said Sam Dawson, political director of the United Steelworkers of America.
He said he thought Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, all Democrats, were running strongest among his union's 650,000 members. Jackson also has significant support, he said.
Gephardt is also getting considerable support from UAW members in Iowa, in large part because of his position on trade. Gephardt is the author of a measure that would mandate retaliation if major trading partners do not reduce their trade surpluses with the United States.
Loretta Bowen, political director of the Communications Workers, said members of that union are working on behalf of a variety of candidates, frequently reflecting regional favoritism, such as strong support for Dukakis in New Hampshire, Gephardt and Simon in Iowa and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. in his home state of Tennessee.