Labor leaders feeling out unions' future in a new political era
By Dick Polman
Friday, February 16. 2001

LOS ANGELES - In the dimly lit hotel bar, Karen Ackerman stared glumly at her ginger ale and pondered the rough road she sees ahead for the labor movement.

"We're going to see a whole rash of antiunion activity," she said, referring to the Bush administration and Republican-led Congress. "There will be efforts to restrict our membership and our activism. There will be new investigations. All because of the good job that we have been doing in the political arena. There will be new efforts by all the forces that want to take workers' voices out of politics."

Thus spoke the assistant political director of the AFL-CIO, an attendee at the group's just-concluded winter meeting - where so many labor leaders struggled this week to sound upbeat in the aftermath of a deeply disappointing election.

For labor, this is clearly a season of mixed signals. While leaders boast about their resurgent political prowess, they are concerned about surviving expected Republican attacks on their institutional vulnerabilities.

David Kusnet, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton who has worked with the AFL-CIO, said: "Labor is in a peculiar position. More than ever in recent history, it has demonstrated that it is a political force to be reckoned with. But the people who are not favorably disposed to labor now control all branches of the federal government."

The AFL-CIO and its 66 unions flexed serious muscle at the climax of the 2000 campaign, demonstrating anew their indispensable role within the Democratic Party. Without labor's high turnout, Al Gore probably would have lost Pennsylvania and Michigan. Without labor, the Democrats would have never achieved virtual parity in the Senate.
'We are prepared'
Yet labor's efforts were not enough. In political terms, Bush, having been bloodied by labor's soldiers, owes the movement nothing. So labor is trying to find the right tone for these less-than-fortunate circumstances - mixing feisty talk with conciliatory gestures, hoping for the best from the new administration while fearing the worst.

AFL-CIO president John Sweeney emerged from the winter meeting with some carefully chosen words: "We're still hopeful that we will have a dialogue with the administration. . . . We are prepared for whatever we are forced to deal with. If we have to go to war, we'll go to war. But at this point we will reach out as much as we can."
There is already talk among labor leaders about planning for the next round of elections - governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia this year, the prospects for delivering a Democratic Congress next year - and that appears to reflect an abiding suspicion of the nascent Bush agenda.

The climate in Washington appears so daunting for labor that some top leaders are shifting their focus to the states, arguing that labor's agenda might fare better at the local level, in piecemeal fashion. This was also a tactic during the Ronald Reagan era.
'Paycheck protection'
In Washington, there are indications that President Bush may roll back some modest labor gains of the Clinton era. He is under pressure from business allies to reverse a Clinton-era rule that protects food workers from repetitive-motion injuries. He may reverse a rule that favored hiring unionized firms for federally financed construction work.

Most important, Bush wants to go after labor's campaign kitty, which is financed by members' dues. He would require that all unions obtain permission from each member before spending dues money on politics. Republicans failed to pass "paycheck protection" at the state level - voters spurned a 1998 California initiative - so Bush wants to weave it into federal campaign-finance reform. Politically, it could cripple the unions.

"For Republicans, this issue is a passion," said Andrew Stern, who runs the Service Employees International Union. ". . . They want to put us through bureaucratic hurdles to prevent us from being heard."

But conservative activist Ron Nehring, who helped spearhead the failed California effort, said that since about 30 percent of unionized workers were Republicans, it was unfair that most labor leaders automatically spend everybody's dues money on Democrats.

Nehring, who is linked ideologically to the House Republican leadership, said: "Nobody is arguing that the unions can't be involved in politics. This is about whether the money for politics is supplied voluntarily or not. Labor leaders know that they wouldn't be able to get all their members to support the [Democratic] agenda, which is why they are scared to death of this."

Some Democrats refuse to believe that Bush will go to the mat against labor. Former speechwriter Kusnet said: "If he goes after labor as an institution, he will be a one-term president. I doubt that his game-plan for 2004 includes losing Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan. You can't win those states without winning working families."

But Nehring said Bush simply needed to pick off his fair share of sympathetic union members, much as Reagan did: "You can address union members without pleasing John Sweeney. [We'll] never be able to appeal to Sweeney, because he is a far-left political figure who is ideologically opposed to what the Bush administration will do."
Administration envoys are making bipartisan gestures but avoiding specifics. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao showed up at the winter meeting and later told journalists she had enjoyed "a very good meeting" and "a delightful dinner" with labor leaders. She wants a cordial relationship, she said, built on areas of commonality. Then she declined to take questions, insisting she was late for her airplane.

The big fear among labor people is that they will not be taken seriously in Republican circles. Their dwindling numbers do not help. They were not pleased to be meeting at a time when the percentage of American workers belonging to unions - 13.5 percent - is the lowest since the halcyon days of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Karen Ackerman blamed bad publicity for fueling labor's recruitment headaches: "There is a bias in this country against unions, and it comes out in a lot of subtle ways, due to the constant [Republican] barrage about union bosses."

But labor's problems are not confined to the GOP. It is also concerned that Democrats will not show proper gratitude for the 2000 electoral effort. Already, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, a labor favorite, has made friendly noises about Bush's pitch for a massive tax cut. And, to labor's chagrin, Senate Democrats did not fight to the finish to block Attorney General John Ashcroft's nomination.
Sweeney said he was disappointed but declined to say whether the AFL-CIO was prepared to punish wayward Democrats at the polls in 2002. The general view is that labor has nowhere else to go.

So the early planning for 2002 continues apace. Ackerman said labor could help save vulnerable Democratic senators. Stern said it could help Democrats elect governors in key states now held by the GOP, including Pennsylvania and New York.
"What matters most for labor is that it stays politically active," Kusnet said. ". . . As long as the politicians think that unionism is alive in America, they will at least keep their ears open."

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