Unions: Laboring Mightily To Avert A Nightmare In November

It's an election-night scenario that makes AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney sweat: Democrats disgusted with Bill Clinton stay home while a massive turnout of outraged Republicans gives the GOP its first filibuster-proof Senate since the Teddy Roosevelt era. That prospect is behind a furious ground war labor has launched to avert disaster on Nov. 3.

Unions hope to stop the GOP from picking up five Senate seats. That would give Republicans the magic 60 needed to end the delaying tactics used by Dems to block antilabor bills. Top goals include protecting prolabor incumbents Barbara Boxer in California and Harry Reid in Nevada. Strong turnout could also help Dems cling to seats in South Carolina, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Arkansas--and unseat GOP incumbents in New York and North Carolina. Frets a top Hill Democratic strategist: "If they don't turn out, we lose."

HITTING PAVEMENTS. Losing would be devastating for labor. The GOP would have the leverage to pass legislation such as bills to limit unions' political spending, curb compensatory overtime, and gut the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. "If they got to 60, [Senate Majority Leader Trent] Lott [R-Miss.] could move a lot of his agenda that he's blocked from doing now," frets AFL-CIO Legislative Affairs Director Peggy Taylor. What's more, it would be easier for Republicans to team up with Democratic moderates to override a Presidential veto.

The AFL-CIO's plan: Ignore the sex scandal and drive its 13 million members to the polls by focusing on hot-button issues where Democrats get high public marks, such as protecting Social Security and improving health care. But instead of making the case through a 1996-style blitz on the airwaves, this campaign will be fought on the streets.

The federation has budgeted $5 million for TV ads, while pouring at least $18 million into a get-out-the-vote drive. Some 300 paid activists will lead the effort, vs. 135 hired in '96. They're working with locals to get thousands of volunteers to make house calls and visit work sites. To maximize its impact, the AFL-CIO also is focusing on just 8 Senate races and 45 tight House contests--down from over 100 two years ago. Labor has given up hopes of recapturing the House for the Democrats, but it's trying to keep losses in the single digits.

Labor's key battleground: California, where staunch ally Boxer is slipping behind her GOP rival, State Treasurer Matt Fong, among likely voters. To help Boxer, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gray Davis, and a half-dozen Democrats in close House contests, labor is trying to repeat its organizational magic of last June. That's when a surprisingly large union vote doomed a state ballot initiative to curb union spending on politics. By late October, labor officials hope to have 8,000 volunteers on the streets. "We don't talk about the scandal, but we do tell our members that [overall] turnout is expected to be lower, so our vote can make the difference," says Arlene Holt, an AFL-CIO official working in California.

The AFL-CIO is supplementing the door-to-door and phone-bank campaigns with mass mailings that compare candidates' positions on issues such as trade and Social Security. Already, every union household in the state--1.4 million adults--has received two mailings. They'll get up to four more by Nov. 3.

Labor's push has the GOP worried. "It rivals any ground war we've ever seen," says the National Republican Congressional Committee's Mary Crawford. The GOP is countering with a TV barrage costing over $30 million. But if labor mobilizes its troops on Election Day, the Dems may yet avert disaster.

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