Big Labor's Contract On Newt

President Clinton isn't the only one who has had to reinvent himself in the wake of the Republican takeover of Capitol Hill. Leaders of the U.S. labor movement--whose lobbying clout has all but vanished--have been shocked into a political makeover of their own.

The move to oust AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland is only the most visible sign of the ferment within Big Labor. Disgruntled unions are crafting feistier forms of political action in a last-ditch effort to help Democrats recapture Congress. For labor, "this could mean a reinvigoration," says Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees.

HIT LIST. Despite labor's vaunted reputation in politics, unions admit that for years they have done little more than make donations and last-minute calls soliciting member support for endorsed candidates. They've relied on lobbyists to influence Congress while failing to employ members to pressure officials.

Now, unions are starting grassroots campaigns to provide members with continual information on issues and lawmakers' positions. They're staging sit-ins and other militant protests against GOP lawmakers. Some unions even plan to withhold money from the Democratic Party when it finances candidates who ignore labor's agenda. Labor must adapt, says Service Employees President John J. Sweeney, "a new attitude toward rewarding our friends and punishing our enemies."

Skeptics note it will take more than a change in tactics to reverse years of ebbing influence. But despite its dwindling share of U.S. workers, the 16 million-member movement can still marshal legions of activists and contributors.

The most ambitious plan to unleash this potential is the '95 Project, which could form the nucleus of the AFL-CIO's political strategy when Kirkland leaves. The AFL-CIO rejected overtures by McEntee, who's leading the effort, to sign on. While unions in the past did little to coordinate political strategies, more than a dozen have joined this project, pitching in $1.5 million for 1995 alone. Past drives concentrated on congressional districts with the most union households, but this one will target the most vulnerable GOP lawmakers--20 freshmen who won by small margins in districts that Clinton carried in 1992. By mid-June, field coordinators will generate mailings, talk-show calls, and letters to editors, detailing incumbents' votes on issues like education.

NO MORE NAFTAS. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners has also started a $1 million campaign to turn members into political activists in GOP districts. Although Democrats captured 63% of the union vote last fall, turnout by organized labor was low. "If we can get people out who didn't vote before, we can make a difference," says Carpenters' President Sigurd Lucassen.

Union leaders hope the early grassroots organizing will not only elect Democrats but keep them loyal--avoiding a repeat of 1993, when a Democratic President and Congress passed the North American Free Trade Agreement over union opposition. And with business donors shifting to the GOP, Democrats in '96 may feel beholden to labor as unions contribute a bigger share of campaign cash.

Certainly, problems remain. Labor is still dominated by aging white men often out of touch with growing ranks of women, minorities, and younger members. And much of today's public rejects its traditional New Deal agenda. Still, even critics credit Newt Gingrich's GOP Revolution for one thing: forcing labor chieftains to adapt to the new times.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.