Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column No. 11 May 29, 2001

As Jeffords Bolts GOP, Labor Strives
For ‘Pro-Worker’ Majority in Congress

By Harry Kelber

Sen. James Jeffords’ departure from the Republican Party means that Democrats will control the Senate and its major committees for the first time since 1994. The Vermonter’s surprise move confirms the viability of the AFL-CIO’s pragmatic political strategy toward the 2002 elections, including an effort to woo moderate Republicans.

“Having Democrats regain the Senate will help protect working families and make it more difficult for the Bush Administration to force a rollback of labor legislation in Congress,” said Bill Samuels, the federation’s legislative director.

In a shift away from earlier strategies, the AFL-CIO will probably back more Republicans in next year’s congressional races than ever before. As many as 60 GOP candidates, possibly more, will get union endorsements if they promise to support labor on at least some issues.

The AFL-CIO will be mobilizing union members in 130 critical congressional districts to press both parties’ candidates for favorable responses on issues affecting working people. “Our goal in 2002 is to elect a pro-worker majority in Congress,” says political director Steve Rosenthal.

Union leaders are still smarting at the brush-off treatment they got from Democratic strategists during the Gore-Lieberman campaign, where they were barely consulted, even in the critical 36 days when the Florida outcome was still in doubt. They can’t forget that 73 Democrats voted in favor of “normalizing” trade with China, disregarding strong opposition from organized labor and its allies.

This bitter recollection helps explain why the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council served notice on the Democratic Party hierarchy that candidates will have to earn labor’s endorsement rather than receive it automatically. Many labor leaders are worried about the role of the Democratic Leadership Council, which is tied to powerful corporate interests and espouses views on trade, taxes, Social Security privatization and school vouchers that are hard to distinguish from those of President Bush.

The federation will soon dispatch 100 “communications managers” to targeted congressional districts in an effort to whip up grassroots support for pro-worker legislation. One can hope this early intervention will facilitate a dialogue between labor’s national policymakers and local union members. “We have to do a better job of communicating with our members, ” Rosenthal said, emphasizing there will be more reliance on e-mail and extensive use of the AFL-CIO’s two Web sites, and

Republican and independent candidates will be encouraged to confer with union leaders about the requirements for endorsements and other assistance. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and a few international union presidents have already met with moderate congressional Republicans, and Rosenthal points out that 33 of them oppose Bush’s efforts to ban project labor agreements, which require the hiring of union workers on many construction projects.

Rosenthal says the new issue-oriented, never-mind-the-party-label strategy will be applied at the state and local levels, too, as well as in the 2004 presidential campaign. “Our grassroots campaign will also carry a strong message to unorganized workers on the value of unions. One of our high priority goals is to achieve real labor law reform,” he added.

In 2000, union households provided a phenomenal 26% of the total votes for the Gore-Lieberman ticket. Conservative Democrats have often assumed that the unions will swallow anything since they have nowhere else to go. But labor is saying “Not this time!”

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