Labor And The Democrats: With Friends Like These...

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,

Alive as you or me.

"But Joe," I says, "you're 10 years dead--"

"I never died," said he.

--The Ballad of Joe Hill


Joe, if you're out there, it's time for you and the other union organizers of yore to check in with the home office. Strange things are happening on Capitol Hill, where Democrats hold sway and organized labor's legislative agenda usually gets a determined push.

No more. After years of seeing labor-backed initiatives get sidetracked in the Senate or squashed by a Presidential veto, Democratic leaders have given the AFL-CIO short shrift this year. The result: a stinging labor defeat over the U. S.-Mexico Free Trade Agreement and growing estrangement between union leaders and Hill Democrats.

HARD FEELINGS. Labor is particularly bitter about the defection of several Democratic leaders over the Mexico pact. Unions waged a fierce battle to deny President Bush "fast-track" negotiating authority, arguing that the treaty would result in massive U. S. job losses. But unions underestimated the allure of free trade. They lost by a wide margin, and the final tallies had Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (Me.) and labor stalwarts such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) on the opposing side.

The loss has driven a wedge between unions and Democrats. George J. Kourpius, president of the International Association of Machinists, attacks "elected `friends' who go over to the enemy when the political wind shifts."

The hard feelings don't end there. After the Mexico FTA, unions' top priority is legislation that would bar employers from hiring replacements for strikers. But labor has managed to sign up only 33 Senate co-sponsors. Unions blame the poor showing on a tepid push from the Democratic leadership.

For some time, Democratic leaders have been trying to send the AFL-CIO a message: In a conservative era, the votes simply aren't there for many items on labor's legislative wish list. But labor's insistence on provoking down-in-flames showdowns has not waned.

What has declined is labor's political clout. As membership has fallen, business groups have become tougher foes, copying labor's grass-roots-lobbying tactics. Younger lawmakers are more independent-minded than older pols. And President Bush's relish for the veto--which he has used to thwart labor-backed family leave and civil rights measures--means that Democrats need a hard-to-find 67 votes in the Senate to pass legislation.

What's labor's response to this mess? Petulance, mostly. The Machinists were so incensed by the fast-track defeat that they rescinded Gephardt's invitation to speak at their June 11 convention, and they vow to deny campaign contributions to other defectors. The Communications Workers of America plan to do the same to those who oppose them on striker replacement. The International Union of Electronic workers promised to go even further by campaigning against fast-track supporters. "If it hurts some people's feelings, tough," snaps IUE President William H. Bywater. "They are hurting us."

Labor and the Democrats aren't headed for a divorce--they rely on each other too much. But while they feud, prospects for parental leave, worker-safety measures, and other labor bills are fading--along with unions' legislative might.

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