Workers Unite...Against The Gop

This election year, the unions are on the march

When Representative James B. Longley Jr. (R-Me.) turned on his television on May 20, he blew his cool. There on the screen was an AFL-CIO advertisement accusing him of voting five times to block a minimum-wage hike. The announcer urged Longley to "start voting for working families for a change."

"Outrageous insinuations," Longley complained, pressing three local stations in his district to pull the ad. Nonetheless, two days later he broke ranks with the House leadership and voted to pass a bill that would boost the minimum wage to $5.15 an hour from $4.25.

Republicans had better get used to such pressure from organized labor. Longley says his vote was not influenced by the ads. But the contretemps just hints at what unions promise to deliver this election year. Armed with an unprecedented $35 million war chest and enraged by the pro-business stance of the Republican Congress elected in 1994, the newly energized AFL-CIO has unleashed an advertising and grassroots blitz in 75 carefully targeted congressional districts. The goal: to pressure lawmakers to support labor's agenda and to oust unfriendly incumbents in November. "We're rolling along--we're hot, we are very hot!" enthuses Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees.

McEntee calls November, 1996, "Armageddon"--the chance to undo the 1994 elections, when 40% of union households voted Republican. In the past 18 months, the GOP leadership has pushed a number of proposals labor considers anathema, including rollbacks in workplace safety rules, weaker overtime laws, and green lights for companies to dip into excess pension funds. "It was this kind of attack on working men and women that pulled the labor movement together," McEntee says.

BARE KNUCKLES. Labor's newfound aggressiveness marks a major change from its stance in 1994. Under Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO played only a bit part in elections. But since becoming president of the union in late 1995, John J. Sweeney has vowed to return the moribund union movement to its glory days as a political and economic powerhouse. He is starting new organizing drives, publicizing questionable corporate practices, and even releasing a book this fall on the role of unions. The AFL-CIO also is trying to raise its visibility with a new campaign called "America Needs a Raise" and is conducting town hall meetings and rallies in 27 cities, including a major one on June 6 on Wall Street. "Workers are under assault like never before, and it requires us to respond like never before," says Richard L. Trumka, the AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer.

Labor leaders argue that many union members based their votes on social issues such as gun control and abortion in 1994 and wouldn't have voted for the GOP if they had known how Republicans would line up on worker-related issues. Now, labor leaders vow to put economic issues front and center. "I don't believe our members went to the polls and said, `Stick it to me,"' says Steve Rosenthal, the federation's political director. "We've got to make sure that people know the issues this time."

The AFL-CIO insists its political activities are nonpartisan. But virtually all of the 75 incumbents targeted for extinction are Republicans in highly competitive districts, and many are vulnerable GOP freshmen. That has the GOP and its business allies apoplectic. "This is aimed at free-enterprise-oriented Republicans, and to say otherwise is ludicrous," says Donald A. Danner, vice-president of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). Having long derided unions as irrelevant, the GOP and business are now aggressively developing plans to protect lawmakers targeted by labor.

With so much at stake, the rhetoric is getting downright nasty. Sweeney says his new campaign is aimed at "Newtie and the Blowhards," a reference to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his congressional allies. Meanwhile, Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio), a member of the House GOP leadership, issues a regular policy paper called "Washington Union Boss Watch." One recent edition alleged "close links" between a union president and both organized crime and the Clintons.

In its bare-knuckled campaign, the AFL-CIO intends to spend some $21 million on ads and $14 million more on grassroots organizing. The federation says it has spent $2 million so far on a wave of minimum-wage and Medicare ads, and it plans more Medicare ads soon. Meanwhile, it is training more than 100 field organizers to coordinate union political activities in the districts.

Labor aims to build a system that will keep pressure on lawmakers long after November. For instance, in the Michigan district of freshman GOP Representative Dick Chrysler, federation coordinator Barbara Smith is setting up a system for mobilizing union locals at a moment's notice to hold rallies, distribute leaflets, and hold press conferences. She insists that she isn't working to defeat Chrysler. But she has distributed a paper on his support of the GOP budget, which includes big cuts in Medicare. "We're telling our members that this isn't right and that they should ask him to explain his position," says Smith.

Shaken business groups are striking back. The NFIB, for one, is targeting districts where the AFL-CIO has established a presence with their own grassroots operations. And GOP leaders have filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission, accusing the unions of misusing dues for partisan political activity.

Ironically, the GOP charges are similar to ones made by the Democratic National Committee, which has complained that the Christian Coalition has illegally used so-called political-education activities to help Republicans. But courts generally have exempted groups from FEC spending limits if they don't advocate defeat or support of specific candidates. Still, some say all these so-called educational activities are unacceptable. "Labor is doing exactly what the Christian Coalition pioneered," says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "All these organizations are walking on the edge of legality."

Republicans say that the AFL-CIO's ads are so distorted that several TV stations have pulled them. Representative Boehner says it's shameful to think that "ads that aim to scare grandmothers and lie to the American people might be an `educational campaign."' Representative Greg Ganske of Iowa says a labor ad inaccurately accused him of cutting Medicare when he only supported cutting its growth. He is running his own ads, warning viewers not be "fooled by special interests."

But for now, the unions don't mind being called a special interest or even Big Labor. As far as they're concerned, the bigger the better.

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