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He's Got Washington Listening To Labor Again

The Workplace: UNIONS


AFL political director Steve Rosenthal is savvy and effective

Steve Rosenthal has heard the story many times. When he was a young child, someone chucked a brick through the window of his parents' house as a warning to his father, a Brooklyn shoe salesman, who was trying to organize a union. Today, Rosenthal is lobbing political bricks of his own as the AFL-CIO's new political director and the architect of the federation's highly successful push back into politics.

Rosenthal, 43, is every Republican's walking nightmare. Since he took over last December, the gregarious New Yorker has injected a new sense of urgency into the AFL-CIO's rusty political machine by pulling together its far-flung operations into a coordinated national effort. Under Rosenthal's guidance, labor has drawn a bead on several dozen swing congressional races. His goal: to woo enough union members who voted Republican in 1994 to tip the balance and help Democrats wrest back control of the House (chart). His chances? Speaker Newt Gingrich recently told reporters that in the event of a defeat, "I'd have played some [role], but the truth is, without the union bosses we'd be gaining at least 30 seats."

Even if the Democrats win big on Nov. 5, Rosenthal insists labor can't afford to relax. With the Clinton Administration and many Democrats opposing the AFL-CIO on issues such as trade and welfare reform, unions can't simply help elect Democrats and wait to collect their IOUs. Instead, Rosenthal hopes to build the energy unleashed in the current campaign into ongoing grassroots efforts to influence national politics on specific issues like health care reform and worker safety. His prototype: the AFL-CIO's crusade to push the minimum wage hike through Congress earlier this year. "If we simply replace Gingrich and our members say, `We've won,' and stop working, we lose," says Rosenthal, who's still adjusting to the switch from behind-the-scenes aide to troop leader who gives pep talks to hundreds of labor activists. "We need to hold all elected officials' feet to the fire on an ongoing basis."

With a background combining labor organizing and politics, Rosenthal was an obvious candidate for labor's top political job under new AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. Rosenthal had worked on Democratic campaigns since just after college. In one race he met Morton Bahr, then head of the Communications Workers of America's New York region. When Bahr became president of the CWA in 1980, he tapped Rosenthal as the union's political director in New Jersey.

"NICE GUY." Next stop: the 1991 Clinton campaign. After Clinton won, Rosenthal joined the transition team at the Labor Dept. and became a top aide to Secretary Robert B. Reich. "He's one of the savviest political operators in Washington and, even rarer, he's also a nice guy," says Reich.

That combination, plus a keen sense of humor, has helped Rosenthal to thrive in the often acrimonious world of politics. A difficult job at Labor was to help smooth relations with often-skeptical union leaders. One union president, William H. Bywater of the electrical workers, considered Reich an academic who had never held a screwdriver--and said so openly. So when Reich was to meet with the AFL-CIO at its annual Florida powwow, Rosenthal suggested that Reich start by asking who made the comment. Lane Kirkland, then AFL-CIO president, tried to smooth it over, says Reich, but Bywater burst out angrily to say he was the accuser. "You're wrong," said Reich, and pulled out an oversize monkey wrench--supplied, of course, by Rosenthal. Everyone burst out laughing, even Bywater, who later befriended Reich.

Republicans aren't laughing, though, as Rosenthal zooms in on key congressional races. In Maine, labor-backed Democrat Tom Allen stands a good chance of unseating Representative James B. Longley Jr. (R-Me.). In early October, Clinton blew in for a rally that drew 14,000 people--half of them union members turned out by Rosenthal's Maine coordinator. "The enthusiasm reverberates down to the littlest guy," says Bill Layman, a retired official in York, Me., and a volunteer in the campaign.

"IRRESPONSIBLE." One of Rosenthal's most effective efforts has been to switch from leaflets endorsing candidates to voter guides that compare the candidates' positions without endorsing anyone. This has Republicans and business groups up in arms. They have brought lawsuits against the AFL-CIO charging that the comparisons, whose costs aren't counted as campaign contributions, constitute thinly disguised support for Democrats.

It's not difficult to figure out who is the good guy when you read one. A typical leaflet says that Dole opposed workers' rights laws while Clinton supports them. "What they're saying is irresponsible and lying," charges R. Bruce Josten, a senior vice-president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Rosenthal denies wrongdoing and points out that the Christian Coalition has long distributed voter guides.

In the past, union households have swung widely between Democrats and Republicans. If Rosenthal can turn even a small number to Democrats, it could tip close races. In blue-collar Cleveland, the AFL-CIO is spending about $1 million since April on TV ads comparing congressional incumbent Martin R. Hoke (R.-Ohio) with Democrat Dennis J. Kucinich, who is spending some $100,000 of his own. "This should be a huge victory for me, except for labor's campaign," says Hoke. Hoke's campaign has also spent about $1 million.

Rosenthal is happy to take credit for Democratic victories in which labor plays a role. But real success will come, he says, only when unions regain enough strength to make Democrats and Republicans alike focus on their needs.By Aaron Bernstein, with Richard S. Dunham, in WashingtonReturn to top

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