Big Labor And Big Bill: One Big Happy Family Again

Just a few months ago, the furious leaders of organized labor swore vengeance on every Democrat who backed Bill Clinton by voting for the North American Free Trade Agreement. But when the graybeards who run the AFL-CIO gather in Bal Harbour, Fla., on Feb. 21, the mood will be all kiss-and-make-up.

The reason for the change of heart is simple: Clinton's No.1 legislative goal for the year, health-care reform, is an issue that has been a top AFL-CIO priority for decades. And there's nothing like the prospect of getting into the trenches and fighting for a Democratic cause to get labor leaders' juices flowing. But the new camaraderie could be short-lived. If, as he has hinted, Clinton abandons some key provisions of his health plan to win moderate support, labor could be in for another bitter disappointment.

SHORT MEMORIES. For now, any trouble is off in the future. Clinton is stroking the unions by dispatching not only Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich but Vice-President Al Gore to Bal Harbour. Gore will praise labor's efforts on behalf of health reform--and will likely promise Administration support for an overhaul of job-safety laws.

Meanwhile, the unions have mostly forgotten their threat to retaliate against pro-NAFTA Democrats. Few, if any, labor-sponsored candidates will challenge NAFTA supporters in Democratic House primaries. And the AFL-CIO has quietly dropped a ban on contributions by affiliated unions to the Democratic National Committee. "You can't go out willy-nilly and knock out people who've been with you 90% of the time," says International Association of Machinists official Robert Kalaski.

Instead, labor is mounting a massive effort in behalf of health reform. One goal is to keep pressure on Clinton to stick with his promise of universal coverage and to fight dilution of the proposed benefit package. The AFL-CIO's grass-roots campaign will include mailings to 360,000 homes in 80 congressional districts. Volunteers from the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees are running phone banks to drum up support for the President's plan. And the labor federation is ponying up $2 million as its share of a media campaign run by a coalition that includes Chrysler and AMR, parent of American Airlines.

Of course, it won't be all sunshine and martinis in Florida. Unions, especially those representing public employees, remain jittery about the Administration's welfare-reform push. The big fear: People who move from welfare to public-service jobs will compete with union members. "That's our primary concern," says an AFSCME official. "We don't want to see our workers displaced." Labor is also nervous about a planned overhaul of unemployment insurance, and it worries about adequate funding for Labor Dept. training programs, especially those for workers displaced by imports.

The effort to overhaul the Occupational Safety & Health Act could prove disappointing, too. Labor wants tough penalties on employers, including some criminal sanctions, and the draft law would require creation of worker-safety committees in every plant. Reich has testified in favor of strengthening the law. But business opposition is fierce, and it's not yet clear whether the Administration will mount the all-out fight needed to beat a likely Senate filibuster.

But whatever the differences with the White House, the AFL-CIO wants to work them out. After all, disputes with Jimmy Carter grew into a bitter feud that helped elect Ronald Reagan. "We just have to take it on the chin," says one labor leader with a sigh. As long as Clinton stands firm on health care, the unions are prepared to take their lumps as the price of ending a long exile from the White House.

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