Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #39 December 18, 2001

Labor’s New Political Strategy
Wins Big Statewide Payoffs

By Harry Kelber

This is the second of three articles on the AFL-CIO convention held Dec. 3-6 in Las Vegas.

The AFL-CIO has embarked on a novel strategy that links its political efforts with organizing and collective bargaining. It is asking elected officials to “express support publicly for workers and condemn employer violations of laws and community standards.” At its recent convention, a key resolution called upon members of Congress and state and local legislative bodies “to begin to act to reform our outdated labor laws so workers can freely choose to join and form unions.”

The new political strategy has already ensured dramatic gains for unions in New Jersey and New York. Speaking to cheering delegates, New Jersey Gov.-elect Jim McGreevey declared: “I want you to know that when I take office within six weeks, we’re going to take on the sweatshops. We’re going to provide for tougher enforcement of labor laws, both in high-tech industries and low-tech temporary firms. Whether it’s the CWA confronting AT&T or the Teamsters with UPS, you’re going to have a governor who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the AFL-CIO.”

McGreevey promised that his first executive order would ensure that “everything that is built by virtue of a public dollar in the state of New Jersey is going to be done pursuant to project labor agreements” that require the use of union construction workers.

McGreevery knows he could not have won the governorship without strong support from the New Jersey labor movement. The unions provided 750 volunteers every weekend before the election, going door-to-door throughout the state. About 15,000 unionists took part in one of the biggest get-out-the-vote campaigns in the state’s history.

The New Jersey AFL-CIO has won wide praise for its effective political work. In the past four years, it helped elect 160 rank-and-file members to all levels of state government, the best record within the AFL-CIO. The state federation has an almost 70% win rate in electing labor candidates from town councils to the Legislature. Its top officers, President Charles Wowkanech and Secretary-Treasurer Laura Brennan, will work closely with the new governor.

But the big surprise of the convention came when a Republican governor, George E. Pataki of New York, announced his support for a “card-check” bill, legislation that enables workers to choose a union to represent them after a majority in the workplace signs authorization cards, certified by the State Employment Relations Board.

Addressing the convention by satellite, Pataki brought the delegates to their feet when he declared: “Today, I’d like to take this opportunity to restate my great respect for the working people of New York State and of the nation by signing the card-check bill into law. I’m going to sign it right now. And with my signature, card check becomes the law in New York State.”

Union leaders at the convention hailed the card-check statute as the most significant labor legislation in decades. It will enable New York unions to bypass the use of the National Labor Relations Board, whose representation elections are not only costly and time-consuming, but often place unions at a disadvantage by tacitly endorsing employers’ anti-union behavior as “exercising free speech.”

Denis Hughes, president of the 2.2 million-member New York AFL-CIO, said the card-check law will give a lift to the organizing campaigns of local union affiliates. He noted that 10,000 to 15,000 employees at six casinos to be built in New York State and operated by Native American tribes can have a unionized work force. The card-check process will serve as a model for unions in other states that will be promoting the idea.

Gerald W. McEntee, chairman of the AFL-CIO’s Political Committee, said the federation will strive to elect 5,000 union members to public office in 2002. In 2000, more than 2,500 unionists were elected, surpassing the goal of 2,000. More than 600 union members have seats at the state level, but a greater effort is needed to elect more to Congress. A new Target 5,000 PAC has been set up that will raise funds to be used exclusively for union-sponsored candidates, McEntee said.

Starting next spring, a new, labor-backed National Political Leadership Institute will offer training courses for would-be candidates and campaign managers. The AFL-CIO will offer full-tuition scholarships at the George Meany Labor Studies Center in Maryland.

The convention introduced a new twist in the AFL-CIO’s political strategy: to use labor’s prowess in getting out the vote and its political clout to augment its disappointing organizing performance. Union leaders realize that 30 to 40 million unorganized workers would join a union where they work if given a risk-free opportunity, according to independent studies. Stronger federal and state labor laws would make it a lot easier to organize them.

The AFL-CIO is now putting greater emphasis on “educating” elected officials to speak out for woorker rights, hoping they will sponsor and support legislation to guarantee the right to join a union without fear of reprisal.

The new strategy, designed to link political and organizing activities for their mutual advantage, will be tested in the course of labor’s 2002 election campaign.

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