Shifting Gears For Ballots

Election Day this November will be a holiday for some 400,000 autoworkers, and that has Republicans concerned.

The holiday, written into major United Auto Worker contracts for this year and 2002, will make it easier for those workers to vote - and help get-out-the-vote efforts. Plus, they're mostly in the Midwest where close contests in big states could end up deciding the next president.

Ohio Republican Chairman Robert Bennett said, "I wasn't really, exactly happy when you put 400,000 additional Democratic grass-roots people in the field - although let me say I'm well aware that the Republicans are getting about 40 percent of the labor vote and we'll appeal to pro-Republican union members."

John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Center for Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said having more autoworkers voting and volunteering on Nov. 7 could have a major impact.

"The UAW workers will make the most difference where the election is the closest, where there is a 2 to 3 percent difference," Green said. "The industrial Midwest will be very competitive."

The holiday provision was written into contracts the United Auto Workers agreed to last year with the Big Three automakers and Delphi Automotive System. About 400,000 UAW members nationwide work for the Big Three - General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler - and for Delphi, GM's former parts unit, the union says.

The states with the highest UAW representation are Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, with substantial numbers for Missouri, Wisconsin, New York and Illinois, too.

Michigan Gov. John Engler "considers this the largest soft money contribution in American political history," said John Truscott, a spokesman for the Republican governor. "Companies will have to pay salary and benefits for them to go out and campaign for Al Gore."

Ohio Democratic Chairman David Leland sees things differently. He says the Republican concerns suggest the GOP is "afraid of the electorate. I think anything we can do to encourage voter participation helps the democracy."

Union officials say the idea of taking Election Day off is to increase voter turnout - not to help a particular candidate.

"It's not about Democrat and Republican - it's about people. Getting people in the right place on the right day," said Willie Hubbard, president of UAW Local 1250, in suburban Cleveland, which represents 4,200 workers at a Ford engine plant.

Paul Krell, communications director for the UAW at its Detroit headquarters, agreed. "Many countries have their election days off and most countries have a much higher voter participation than we do," he said. "It's not about partisanship, it's about citizenship."

The UAW has not endorsed Gore, and its president Stephen Yokich, said the union should consider alternatives such as Green Party candidate Ralph Nader after Gre backed normalizing trade relations with China.

Still, Bennett, the Ohio Republican chairman, said union leaders and the Democratic Party are "synonymous." He also says he strongly supports voter participation but doesn't like one party getting an advantage.

Bennett has suggested the Republicans include making Election Day a national holiday in their party platform this summer.

That idea doesn't seem to have received much attention from the GOP at a national level. A Republican National Committee spokeswoman working on party platform issues hadn't heard of Bennett's idea when asked about it.