Commentary: Labor's Labors Aren't Lost

Organized labor made a Herculean effort for the Democrats in the recent elections, only to see the GOP retain control of both houses of Congress and perhaps capture the Presidency, too. But while the outcome is a disappointment to the AFL-CIO, unions probably won't suffer as much damage as may first appear. Given the Republicans' slim majority in Congress, business isn't likely to get its way on labor legislation, even if George W. Bush does wind up in the White House.

In fact, the gridlock almost certain to persist on Capitol Hill will put labor in a surprisingly good position on education, Social Security, and taxes. True, the Democrats are more beholden to labor than ever, in light of the crucial difference its efforts made in so many House and Senate races. But a victorious Gore wouldn't be able to make sweeping changes, either, given the divided legislature.

Unions aren't looking to rock the boat on these issues, in any case. Their primary concern is to head off such GOP initiatives as big tax cuts, which are also unlikely now. The result is likely to be little change or centrist policies that don't cut too sharply against a labor agenda. "I hate to throw in the towel and say business can't accomplish anything in this environment," says Patrick J. Cleary, vice-president for human resources at the National Association of Manufacturers. "But whatever we achieve will be fairly minor."

Certainly, the Democrats owe labor big time. Without the AFL-CIO's efforts, Gore almost certainly would have trailed badly, as would many Democratic House and Senate candidates. Indeed, the massive on-the-ground political operation the AFL-CIO has rebuilt under President John J. Sweeney is the mainstay of the Democratic Party in many parts of the country. For this election, the federation put more than 1,000 political coordinators into key congressional districts, up from 400 in 1998, and 200 in 1996. The coordinators trained and directed hundreds of thousands of volunteer foot soldiers. All told, labor made 8 million phone calls to union members, up from 5.5 million in 1998, and sent out 12 million pieces of mail. Unions also passed out more than 14 million leaflets. "This was by far the greatest program labor has ever put together," boasted AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Rosenthal the day after the election.

TURNOUT. And it showed on Nov. 7. Union households made up 26% of the electorate, vs. 23% in 1996 and 19% in 1992, according to Voter News Service data. Put another way, labor persuaded 2.5 million more union members or their families to go to the polls than in 1996, a huge margin in such a tight race. And 63% of union voters plumped for Gore, vs. just 32% for Bush. By contrast, Walter Mondale won only 53% of the union vote in 1984, with 46% of it going to Ronald Reagan.

Grateful Dems on the Hill are likely to fight hard against the GOP's workplace agenda (table). In recent years, Republican leaders have pushed business-sponsored bills to ease federal laws on everything from overtime to family leave. But they failed to get a majority or enough votes to override President Clinton's veto threat. Even if Bush prevails in the recount, the GOP could have a tough time mustering a majority on such controversial issues, concedes the NAM's Cleary and others.

Where labor stands to lose the most, in the event of a Bush victory, is in the regulatory arena, where the President has greater leeway. The Clinton Administration has issued a number of pro-labor regulations, such as the proposed new ergonomic rules that business tried hard to kill off for three years. As President, Gore would probably follow Clinton's lead, but Bush could use similar tactics to favor employers.

ANATHEMA. Still, labor is likely to do fairly well on larger national policy issues, no matter who finally captures the White House. Continued gridlock would prevent Bush from trying to privatize Social Security or push through big tax cuts or school vouchers--all anathema to labor. "The American people voted for little change, so it's hard to imagine anything like a major overhaul of Social Security," says Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern.

Labor leaders had hoped that a Gore victory would be an opportunity to make real gains--for example, by tightening up rules on employer opposition to unionization drives. Gore still might try if he prevails. But it would be just as difficult for Gore to push pro-labor reforms as it would be for Bush to win anti-labor ones. Despite its big hand on Election Day, labor will have to be content with the same prospect faced by business and everyone else: little change on the policy front, no matter what your political perspective.

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