Clinton's Focus If Big Labor Wins the House
Organized labor wants to give its best friend, Bill Clinton, a $35 million present: a chaperone. The AFL-CIO is mounting an independent "education" campaign -Ñ modeled after similar efforts by the Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Association, GOPAC, and other conservative groups Ñ- to elect a Democratic House this fall. The labor federation has targeted 75 districts, most of them represented by freshmen Republicans, with advertising that criticizes the incumbents' voting records on issues such as workplace safety, the minimum wage, health care, pension protections, and student loans. Among the intended targets are Massachusetts's two Republican congressmen: Peter Torkildsen, of Danvers, and Peter Blute, of Shrewsbury, both of whom were elected in 1992. The stakes are enormous for big labor, whose image is on the uptake after years of declining membership and a well-deserved reputation for corruption. If the campaign succeeds, the virulently anti-labor Republican House would give way to a Democratic majority that would owe much of its very existence to union efforts. More important, having at least one branch of Congress in the hands of pro-labor Democrats would serve as a strong check on Clinton's instincts to reach compromises with the Republicans on proposals that hurt working families. Clinton salvaged his presidency by redefining himself as a moderate alternative to both Newt Gingrich's revolutionaries and Democratic congressional liberals. So though Clinton would no doubt prefer a Democratic House to a Republican one, the change would nevertheless force him to shift his focus in a fundamental way. "The fact that his program is so damn Republican makes it hard for the Dick Gephardts to push a Democratic program," says Robert Kuttner, co-editor of the liberal American Prospect, who calls Clinton "the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland." A prominent Arkansas union official once famously said of Clinton that he'll "pat you on the back and piss down your leg." So the AFL-CIO's strategy of praising Clinton while concentrating its efforts on Congress is a smart one. "We think President Clinton has been pretty good for working families, and with a Democratic House that can only get better," says Deborah Dion, a spokeswoman for the national AFL-CIO. For a self-proclaimed friend of labor, Bill Clinton has compiled a curiously mixed record. On the one hand, he's turned back assaults by the Republican Congress aimed at loosening workplace-safety regulations and at cutting basic economic protections such as Medicare and student loans. He also supported legislation to prohibit companies from hiring permanent replacements for striking employees (it failed), and opposes Republican efforts to change collective-bargaining rules in favor of employers. On the other hand, he pushed through NAFTA and GATT, free-trade agreements that leaders of organized labor believe (with some justification) are costing jobs and lowering wages. He didn't fight for a higher minimum wage until he'd lost his Democratic majority in Congress. He accepted a balanced-budget plan that virtually requires deep cuts in programs that help working families. And he signed a punitive welfare-reform bill while promising to seek tax breaks for businesses that hire welfare recipients Ñ- raising the specter of low-income workers' being cast aside by employers eager to cash in on government subsidies. Indeed, Republican political analyst Kevin Phillips once described Clinton as "the 20th century's most actively anti-labor president." That may be a reflection of the times more than of Clinton -- after all, does anyone doubt that Bob Dole would pursue an agenda even more inimical to labor's interests? -Ñ but a Democratic majority in at least one branch of Congress would force Clinton to move at least somewhat to the left. Certainly the AFL-CIO's efforts could make a difference in close races. In Massachusetts, for instance, Democrat John Tierney two years ago nearly beat Torkildsen (who's proÐminimum wage, but who also supported NAFTA and GATT), which would have won him the distinction of being the only Democrat in the country to defeat an incumbent Republican. This year's rematch may be equally close, which makes the $100,000 or so in radio-ad time the AFL-CIO has purchased thus far -Ñ with more to come Ñ- potentially bad news for Torkildsen. On the other hand, dislodging Blute, who sided with labor by opposing NAFTA and GATT and by supporting the minimum wage, will be more difficult; the AFL-CIO has invested fewer resources in Blute's district than in Torkildsen's, and it's unclear how much those ads will improve Democrat Jim McGovern's chances. Rich Rogers, political director of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, says he's also planning to help Democrat Bill Delahunt, the Norfolk district attorney, who's hoping to succeed retiring Democratic congressman Gerry Studds, and, in Western Massachusetts, Democratic incumbent John Olver, who may face a tough challenge this fall from Republican State Senator Jane Swift. Another Rogers priority: re-electing US Senator John Kerry, who, according to polls, is running behind his Republican challenger, Governor Bill Weld. The labor federation's national goal of electing a Democratic House is a long shot in a political culture that seems addicted to divided government. The best guessing now is that though the Democrats are likely to make gains because of Gingrich's unpopularity, they're unlikely to retake the institution, which they controlled for 40 years before the Republican sweep of 1994. Still, if the House were to be restored to Democratic control, it would stand as a remarkable victory for organized labor, capping off a very good year. It began last October, when John Sweeney, the former head of the Service Employees International Union, defeated longtime AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland. Though Sweeney himself is in his 60s and is seen as a transitional figure, he's put into place a new generation of aggressive leaders who are expected to move to the forefront over the next several years. The new leadership's first goal was to win back the hearts and minds of its own members. Sweeney hired Peter D. Hart Research to poll union members, and the results showed that workers resented simply being told to vote for a particular candidate. Instead, respondents said they wanted information on public officials so they could make up their own minds. The result was the $35 million campaign, in which the targeted congressmen are singled out for their stands on specific issues. But if big labor has taken a step out of the crypt, it's a tentative step at best. The AFL-CIO may have succeeded in putting together "Union Summer," a youth organizing crusade that led Newsweek to proclaim that it's hip to be union. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership fell to a 60-year low of 14.9 percent of the workforce in 1995. Union households made up more than 30 percent of the workforce in the 1940s and '50s, and were at 21.9 percent as recently as 1980. What's more, with manufacturing jobs continuing to disappear, a large percentage of today's union members work for the government. And as Dole's acceptance-speech rhetoric shows, bashing public-employee unions such as the National Education Association resonates with much of the public. Then there's the question of whether big labor's leadership -Ñ even the less-fossilized team Sweeney has put together -Ñ is in touch with the country's 16.4 million union employees. An estimated 40 to 45 percent of union members voted Republican in the 1994 midterm elections, which is one of the reasons that the AFL-CIO is so eager this time around to inform its members of the anti-labor records of the congressmen it has targeted for defeat. But still, the membership appears to be considerably more conservative than the leadership. A significant portion of Pat Buchanan's pitchfork peasants were working-class people, union and non-union, who not only liked Buchanan's anti-free-trade, anti-corporate themes, but who also liked Buchanan's immigrant-bashing, welfare-slashing, anti-choice, pro-gun rhetoric, all of which are anathema to labor leaders. Indeed, earlier this year Luntz & Associates, a polling firm best known for helping Gingrich put together the Contract with America, questioned 1000 members of AFL-CIO-affiliated unions following the announcement of the $35 million campaign. The poll, conducted on behalf of Americans for a Balanced Budget, found that 87 percent of union members favored the kind of welfare reform recently passed by the Republican Congress and signed by Clinton, and 82 percent approved of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. More ominously for Sweeney and company, 58 percent said they had no idea that the AFL-CIO was spending $35 million on political activities, and 62 percent said they opposed having any portion of their dues used for such purposes; more than half said they might seek refunds, which some union critics claim they are legally entitled to. Even though AFL-CIO officials and independent observers expect conservative groups will far outspend labor, Luntz project director Andrew Smith says it's fair to assume that members of the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association "are much more well-informed" about their organizations' political activities, which in many cases are what attracted them to join in the first place. Some Republicans have even questioned the legality of the AFL-CIO campaign, but the courts have ruled consistently that such efforts are exempt from campaign-finance laws as long as there are no explicit endorsements offered. Perhaps the biggest problem the AFL-CIO faces is that Bill Clinton keeps stepping on its strongest message. Buchananism enjoyed its brief moment in the sun earlier this year because economic insecurity is a real issue; the New York Times did a seven-part series on it, and Newsweek plastered post-office-style photos of job-slashing CEOs on its cover. Wages, adjusted for inflation, are falling, and income inequality is rising. Yet Clinton proclaims that happy days are here again, making it difficult for his allies in the Democratic Party and the labor movement to say otherwise. Clinton may be tempted to triangulate right through January 2001, but in the long run he knows he'll be better off with a Congress at least partly in the hands of his own party. University of Virginia government professor Larry Sabato expects Clinton to turn his attention to Senate and House races by mid October, if for no other reason than to stop the congressional inquiries into Whitewater. "This guy looks out for number one first, foremost, and forever," says Sabato. In the end, Clinton and the labor movement need each other. For labor, Clinton is infinitely preferable to Dole; free at last from the pressures of having to think about the next campaign, he might finally prove to be a friend to labor in deed as well as word. As for Clinton himself, labor's support could be crucial if Dole gets close. And as last week's contretemps over triangulator-in-chief Dick Morris showed, there's still a long way to go between now and Election Day.