Labor's Last Laugh

It didn't retake Congress in '96, but it's getting results

After the AFL-CIO's $35 million campaign to reclaim Congress for the Democrats fell short last fall, Republicans were quick to proclaim Big Labor the Big Loser of '96. Elated GOP lawmakers derided AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney for wasting members' dues, and they vowed to seek legislative revenge for his audacious assault.

Half a year later, those threats ring increasingly hollow. An aggressive labor movement is flexing its muscle on Capitol Hill, sidetracking Republican bills and successfully parrying moves to curb union political activity (table). On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the AFL-CIO has won President Clinton's ear on key issues such as welfare reform and has forged ties to Vice-President Al Gore, who is courting unions for a White House run in 2000.

Outside Washington, the AFL-CIO has mobilized a powerful grassroots lobbying machine to target vulnerable Republicans--and wayward Democrats--in their home districts. Sweeney has backed up the ground campaign with $5 million for TV and radio air attacks this year. "Labor didn't lose the elections," he asserts. "Just look at the behavior of Congress this year, where you see no broadsides against working family programs."

GNASHING OF TEETH. The AFL-CIO hasn't exactly pulled off a Gingrich-style revolution. It has, in fact, failed to derail big tax cuts or alter labor laws to make unionization easier. Still, labor's effectiveness has business groups gnashing their teeth. "Clearly, business is unhappy about Clinton giving in to labor on a lot of issues," says R. Bruce Josten, a senior vice-president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The unions' surprising success is a product, in large part, of last fall's election. Just 56 of the 116 GOP congressional candidates targeted by labor went down to defeat. But 18 of those were incumbents, and many of the 60 survivors just squeaked by. Now, wary Republicans say they feel vulnerable to labor's renewed attacks. And GOP leaders, fearful that their party will be painted as extremist in next year's campaign, have put on the back burner such antilabor initiatives as eliminating wage laws on federal construction projects or slashing the budgets of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the National Labor Relations Board.

The AFL-CIO has worked hard to maintain its grassroots momentum. Political Director Steve Rosenthal has targeted about 100 congressional districts, mostly Republican, where he thinks labor's influence can be most effective. Rosenthal has pressured the AFL-CIO's state and local councils to turn out activists on issues in Congress, and the councils and individual unions are now leafleting, organizing rallies, and running phone banks and letter-writing campaigns. A campaign in the United Steelworkers locals produced 54,000 letters to Congress opposing legislation such as the balanced-budget amendment and comp time.

AFL-CIO headquarters has supported local activities with $1 million in TV and radio ads so far this year. One spot ran in 19 districts, including that of Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.). It features a decaying school, which, the voice-over implies, got that way because Republicans gave away billions in corporate tax breaks rather than provide money for education. "These are lies paid for by union dues," says Tiahrt.

For now, labor's influence is most apparent in the ongoing battle over legislation covering comp time. Republicans want a bill that would let employers give compensatory time off to employees who work overtime. But labor argues that the bill would allow companies to coerce workers into taking unpaid comp time. In response, Clinton has threatened to veto the bill and has offered his support for a Democratic alternative.

The AFL-CIO waged its battle in the field. It urged unionists in a dozen states to call their senators on a special 800 number and solicited 30,000 members in those states for permission to send mailgrams in their names to Washington. It also bought $100,000 of radio time to target senators in nine states, and local councils held rallies around the country. "We want our politicians to know how we feel about this legislation," says Barbara Janis, an Ohio political director at UNITE!, the needle-trades union. On May 15, Senate Republicans got just 53 votes to shut off debate on their bill, seven less than required; now, Republican leaders vow to try again. "Labor has Republicans on the run," grouses one corporate lobbyist.

"THE VETO PEN." Despite the loss of allies such as former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, labor has forged strong relations with the second Clinton Administration. National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and White House domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed are readily accessible, and Sweeney and his aides talk frequently to Clinton's Chief of Staff, Erskine B. Bowles. The President is willing to "use the veto pen" to defend labor against GOP attacks, says White House spokesman Michael D. McCurry.

Sweeney himself meets the President at least once a month--sometimes with striking results. On Mar. 28, he visited the White House with three public-sector union presidents and persuaded Clinton to deny Texas a waiver allowing companies to run the state welfare program. Clinton also agreed to apply labor laws, including the minimum wage, to workfare participants. That's clout. The AFL-CIO's influence doesn't approach what it was decades ago. But Sweeney's big push has labor back on the political map.