Labor's Strategy With Clinton: Take It Slow

After more than a decade in the wilderness, organized labor is looking across the river--and seeing a vista that falls short of the Promised Land. The election of Bill Clinton finally gives unions a chance to make some headway on their long-frustrated legislative agenda. But the unions' strategy for dealing with a moderate Democratic President from a right-to-work state is to take it slow. For now, labor leaders have pared their wish list down to the bare essentials.

At a postelection AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting, union presidents agreed to a relatively modest program made up of proposals that Clinton has endorsed. Unions also agreed to funnel policy and personnel ideas through the federation. "We don't want to be in a position where hundreds of demands from our side are being thrown at him, and nothing gets done," says AFL-CIO lobbyist Bill Cunningham. Unions aren't pushing any candidate hard for Labor Secretary, though they expect to be consulted about the job. Names circulating in labor circles include Democratic Party official Alexis Herman and Transportation Communications Union Vice-President Jack F. Otero.

LOWBALL PRICE? Labor and Clinton are in general agreement on the incoming Administration's top priority: an economic recovery program including job-creating infrastructure investment. Unions consider Clinton's $20 billion-a-year price too modest but realize the deficit prevents anything bigger. Also high on the AFL-CIO list is legislation, vetoed by President Bush, mandating family leave. Blessed with overwhelming Democratic support, the bill could be the first to hit Clinton's desk. And unions support health-care reform, though arguments loom over the specifics.

What's missing? The labor-law issues that used to dominate the legislative efforts of the AFL-CIO's--and drive business crazy. For now, unions are pushing only a measure preventing employers from permanently replacing striking workers.

Other efforts are on hold--for the time being. Unions are backing off on a proposal to ban state right-to-work laws. Nor are they pushing indexing the minimum wage to inflation or boosting penalties on employers who endanger worker safety. Unions are even keeping a low profile on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Clinton backs, though labor will fight the pact when it comes up for approval.

Labor's reluctance to push its agenda right away is tactical. They're so happy to have a Democrat in the White House that they're willing to cut him some slack. They recognize that Clinton is trying to forge ties with business and that he is chary of being seen as too liberal. But they also believe that the President-elect owes them. Labor's political arm delivered 60% of union households for Clinton. "I'm not naive enough to think that Clinton will do everything I want," says Jack Sheinkman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union, "but I feel very positive about the change in climate."

Public employee unions are expecting a more direct payoff for the early backing they gave Clinton in the primaries. Officials of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees expect that the ties that President Gerald W. McEntee forged with Clinton will pay off when the White House considers aid to state and local governments, infrastructure spending, and the impact of medicaid spending on state budgets. "We'll have the opportunity to be heard," says one insider.

After the long Republican freeze-out, just being heard is welcome to labor. And to enjoy good relations with a new occupant of the White House, labor seems ready to keep its demands pent up--at least for a while.

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