How Labor's Campaign Blitz Made The Gop Blink

Enraged Republicans vowed revenge last November when organized labor's $35 million campaign blitz helped topple 18 GOP incumbents and nearly shifted control of the House to the Democrats. But lately, Republican pledges to go for a labor knockout have given way to targeted jabs. The reason: Many Republicans, spooked by the AFL-CIO's hardball tactics, don't want to alienate blue-collar constituents and become targets for defeat in 1998. "The unions didn't win the election, but they sure made some of our members nervous," admits one GOP staffer.

The Republicans' new strategy is to wage a stealth campaign against labor and avoid the direct assaults of 1995 that let Democrats tag the GOP as extremists out to harm working families. Gone from the '97 hit list are brash union-bashing items such as gutting the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, weakening the National Labor Relations Board, and repealing the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which props up wages on federal contracts. Instead, the GOP is rolling out several measures that thwart union goals while making the party look like it cares about typical wage-earners. "This is a pro-worker, family-friendly agenda," says Assistant Senate Majority Leader Don Nickles (R-Okla.).

"PAYBACK." One example: The House plans to vote on Mar. 19 on a GOP bill that would give private-sector employees flexibility to take compensatory time off instead of overtime pay. Unions--which fear the plan would let companies coerce workers into choosing comp days instead of money--support President Clinton's plan to increase time off under the Family & Medical Leave Act of 1993. Still, labor officials are relieved that a more mellow GOP majority on Capitol Hill has backed off from postelection threats to wage war on unions. "This is nothing compared to what they tried in the last Congress," says AFL-CIO Legislative Director Peggy Taylor.

That's not to suggest Republicans will forgive and forget. The GOP plans to take some targeted shots, such as passing the business-backed Teamwork for Employees and Managers Act (TEAM). It would allow employers and workers to negotiate non-collective bargaining issues such as day care, flexible schedules, and productivity. The AFL-CIO fears that would open the door to company-dominated unions. "This is payback because of the work the unions did last election," says Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a strong labor backer who's counting on a Presidential veto to block passage.

The GOP's best opportunity to make labor sweat may come as Congress turns a spotlight on campaign-finance abuses. The Senate voted on Mar. 11 to broaden its hearings into fund-raising improprieties to include independent expenditures such as the '96 effort orchestrated by AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. Nickles is drafting a package that would make it harder for Sweeney to duplicate last year's drive. The plan would bar union leaders from using dues to pay for political activities without members' prior permission.

Although most Republicans support such targeted reprisals, a few firebrands are still calling for blood. Representative Jon Christensen (R-Neb.), a top union target in '96, is spearheading a frontal attack to force unions to disclose to members the percentage of money spent on politics. And Representative Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.), who is pushing the comp-time bill, says he won't give up. "If they [union leaders] shut their eyes, we'll run over them with a truck."

That's unlikely, since labor is not about to let its guard down. For now, both sides may have to settle for an uneasy standoff until their next showdown in 1998.

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