Labor's Modest Quid Pro Quo

Even if the Democrats win, unions don't expect a big payback

The newly militant AFL-CIO has played a highly visible role during this political campaign, pushing hard to undercut the Republicans' majority in Congress. So if Democrats recapture the House, should Corporate America worry about IOU collection from a labor movement with an antibusiness wish list as extensive as a lobbyist's Rolodex?

Not exactly. Sure, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney would like everything his predecessor sought, such as new labor laws to boost union recruitment drives, national health-care reform, and the like. But Sweeney, who moved to oust Lane Kirkland last year partly out of frustration with the federation's tired political strategy, has a more subtle, longer-term perspective. He knows that sweeping pro-labor changes are currently a pipe dream, no matter which party runs Congress. Instead, the AFL-CIO will push a relatively modest agenda that has broad appeal to many workers (table). Sweeney also hopes to mobilize the vast grassroots activism unleashed during the campaign around specific issues. "We're going to continue the momentum we've built up, to keep raising issues working families care about," says Sweeney.

Labor's immediate goals are mostly defensive. After Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, they installed committee chairs who tried to cut the National Labor Relations Board's budget by 30% and repeatedly hauled in its chairman for hostile questioning. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration got similar treatment.

The popular backlash against the Republican revolution has slowed the attacks in recent months, and unions are anxious to ensure that they don't restart. Which party takes the House will make a big difference. If Republicans retain control, labor could face retribution. But "if Congress switches back to the Democrats, labor will be better able to determine the agenda again," says National Association of Manufacturers Vice-President Mike Baroody.

Even with a Democratic majority, however, labor wouldn't be able to push major changes past centrists in both parties. Instead, it will try to expand medical and pension coverage for job-changers or support Clinton's plan to give employees 24 hours off a year to deal with family issues. "The next Congress will revolve around moderate Republicans and [conservative] Democrats, and our strategy has to take that into consideration," says Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, who heads the AFL-CIO's political committee.

WAGE HIKE. Sweeney's larger ambition is to alter the way labor engages in politics. For decades, the AFL-CIO and large unions have maintained cadres of Washington lobbyists to play the political influence game. Now Sweeney wants to pull back from Beltway battles and rebuild political muscle at the grassroots level. The best example: the campaign the federation ran earlier this year to push the minimum-wage increase through Congress. Unions involved rank-and-file members with rallies, bought local TV ads, and prodded moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats. They succeeded by casting the increase as an issue of fairness.

Sweeney plans to mount similar campaigns after the election on issues such as sweatshops and workers' rights in world trade agreements. He hopes this will both strengthen unions' political clout and fuel the local activism that feeds recruitment drives. "There's a lot of new energy now, a feeling of optimism among members that the labor movement is rejuvenated," says Diane McDaniel, the political director of Washington state's labor federation.

Business groups are worried by labor's new activism. But pulling off Sweeney's agenda won't be easy. If he succeeds, the AFL-CIO again may warrant the Big Labor label the GOP loves to tag it with.

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