Unions Mobilize to Beat Bush, Regain House
By Thomas B. Edsall Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday , March 27, 2000; A10
Determined to keep a liberal legislative agenda at the center of the national debate, leaders of organized labor have developed a back-to-basics program to convince 16 million union members that George W. Bush and a Republican Congress are threats to their livelihood and well-being.
"We want to be sure that by the time the Republican television ads start this
summer, every union member knows that this guy [Bush] is not on their side and
that a vote for him is a vote against workers and against unions," said Steve Rosenthal, political director of the AFL-CIO.
Major business groups, in turn, are raising unprecedented amounts of money and gearing up for what they hope will be a massive corporate mobilization of employees and stockholders to blunt the growing influence of labor in elections.
Republican control of the White House and both chambers of Congress would give business an opportunity to enact an agenda that includes restrictions on the political use of union dues, partial privatization of Social Security, limited mini- mum wage hikes, moderation of workplace health and safety rules, and, of crucial importance to business, tough tort reform that would limit the ability of consumers to sue corporations.
Conversely, Democratic control of the White House and the House--the Senate will likely remain Republican--would give organized labor powerful leverage in setting legislative priorities and in making changes in labor law and labor regulation. Such a result would help the AFL-CIO and its member unions continue to reverse the trend of declining membership and diminished political power.
Both sides see the next president as likely to make at least three appointments to
the Supreme Court, and in the process to shape the ideological and economic tilt of
the nation's legal system.
For organized labor, the first item on the political agenda is the defeat of Bush, who is seen as explicitly anti-union. Labor leaders plan to portray the Texas governor as a threat to working men and women--a politician who would empower corporate America to gut workers' wages, benefits and workplace protections.
"Across the board, when you talk about worker issues, George Bush is not just missing in action," said Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and chairman of the AFL-CIO political committee. "It's worse: He's on a search-and-destroy mission."
The AFL-CIO has commissioned extensive research to determine the most effective ways to communicate its political goals to union members. Surveys of members by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin show that a phone call from a fellow union member or a flier distributed at the workplace by a union member or union leader are among the most effective tools, while direct mail and newsletters are among the least effective.
Among union members who received no political information from their unions in 1998, 58 percent voted for Democratic congressional candidates and 27 percent for Republicans--a 31-point margin--according to surveys conducted for the AFL-CIO. The pro-Democratic margin rose to 44 percentage points among those who received direct mail, to 54 points among those who got a call from a fellow union member, and to 58 points, with 76 percent voting Democratic, among those who received fliers from union members at the workplace.
The most effective communication strategy is also the most personnel-intensive, and union officials have been setting up political liaisons in each battleground state and congressional district, with designated union officers and workers in every local headquarters and at every work site.
Labor will in large part abandon the "issue ad" strategy of 1996, when the AFL- CIO spent millions running television ads in the districts of vulnerable incumbent Republicans--a tactic that was costly, controversial and relatively ineffective. Instead, the AFL-CIO will concentrate on registering, persuading and turning out union members in force, capitalizing on a trend of increased political participation by union members. From 1992 to 1998, the percentage of voters from union households rose from 18 percent to 23 percent.
In three key states--Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin--President Clinton won because of his strong union support. If only voters from nonunion households had cast ballots in these states, Clinton would have lost, according to exit poll data.
Next month, the barrage of political persuasion begins with the first in a series of fliers contrasting Bush's stands on issues--from health care to "right-to-work" laws barring union shops--with Vice President Gore's, distributed to workers by fellow union members.
The union operation will focus on the Gore-Bush contest first, in part because it is the most visible, and because the candidates take opposing stands on key issues. Labor leaders are convinced that they have the opportunity to define Bush before he gets a chance to define himself to most union voters. If the GOP presidential nominee can be successfully portrayed as a threat, it will make it much easier to paint a similarly threatening picture of the predominantly Republican congressional candidates that labor hopes to defeat.
As the AFL-CIO's political operation goes into action, major business groups are countering with stepped-up fund-raising and a sharp escalation of political activity. They are focusing on Congress, not the presidential race, with a goal of turning out mainly Republican voters.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is not only rejuvenating a moribund political action committee to channel money to candidates but also plans to initiate a multimillion-dollar program to spend up to $100,000 in 35 or more key House races, and larger sums in 10 to 12 Senate contests, much of it as independent expenditures. The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) plans to double previous records in political fund-raising and spending, with a goal of $7 million to $8 million for this election cycle.
"What's at stake? It's pretty much black and white," said Dennis Whitfield, NFIB senior vice president. "We support the folks that support us. We've got a situation right now where the [GOP House] leadership has a 93 percent NFIB rating, and the speaker [J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)] is 100 percent." The Democrats who would take over leadership positions if the House changes hands have a collective NFIB rating of 7 percent, and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) has a zero rating, Whitfield said.
Both labor and business face substantial hurdles in their bids to influence the outcome of the 2000 elections. Business lacks the readily accessible voter block that is the bread and butter of labor, and there have been strategic disagreements between the Chamber leadership and the group's major fund-raiser, Ted Welsh, that have slowed development of the Chamber's program, according to sources.
For the AFL-CIO, two key unions, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, so far have refused to endorse Gore because of Clinton administration trade policy. Without these two unions, it will be difficult to establish a united labor front.
Many sources expect the Teamsters to back the vice president soon, but no one knows what UAW President Stephen P.Yokich will do. The UAW is a major force in Midwestern states, especially Michigan, that are expected to be battlegrounds in the fall.
"No question about it, the UAW is the key union in Michigan," said McEntee. "In my mind, for the entire Democratic ticket, in terms of trying to take over the House, making a run at the Senate, and the presidency, there is no question that the UAW and Teamsters are increasingly important to that process."
Yokich's anger at the Clinton-Gore administration was evident last week when he issued a statement attacking Gore for supporting a "voodoo trade policy" with China. "Al Gore should know better than to jump on that big business bandwagon," he said.
Yokich's dilemma is whether to stand on principle and refuse to endorse a candidate whose trade policies he believes cost union members jobs or to join with the rest of the labor movement behind Gore in support of the long-range goal of restoring the prestige labor held in the 1950s and 1960s. Starting in the 1970s, the AFL-CIO was generally viewed as a paper tiger, a once-powerful force whose influence in elections and in Congress steadily diminished.
After taking a huge hit in the 1994 congressional elections, the union movement, under AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, has worked to regain its influence--both in campaigns and in Congress, where it has succeeded in putting legislation such as increasing the minimum wage and patients' rights in the forefront of consideration.