- - Monday, September 30, 2013

In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it seems like deja vu all over again.

Back in 1993, Hillary and Bill Clinton had decided what the American people wanted and needed was a major redo of the most successful health care system in the world and that they were just the duo to give it to us. The result was Hillarycare and a massive lobbying campaign to get Congress to accept it. The usual Democratic allies entered the fray, including that most reliable of Democratic allies, organized labor.

At the time, I represented a major AFL-CIO union whose president was not nearly as enthusiastic about the unquestioning way his brothers and sisters in the AFL-CIO threw in with the Clintons to promote what Congress later rejected as a rather problematic approach to health care reform.

I was a bit perplexed myself because it just didn’t seem to me to be in organized labor’s interest to give up its ability to bargain for a better deal for union members than what they or anyone else could go out and buy for themselves and their families on the open market. Employers were, for better or worse, more than willing to sign off on generous health care packages, and many union members benefited from them.


So, over a drink one evening, I asked the president of the union why the AFL-CIO leadership would be so anxious to support a government health care takeover that would, in essence, deprive member unions of one the most attractive benefits of union membership. He laughed and said the answer was easily understood once you realized “that the AFL-CIO is run by Social Democrats, who are more interested in establishing government programs than in looking out for the best interests of workers.”

That made sense then and explains what’s going on today as union leaders who pressured Congress to enact Obamacare are beginning to realize that in doing so, they overlooked the very special interests of their members.

In their rush to help President Obama, Sen. Harry Reid and others, labor threw its support behind Obamacare, even though many labor officials realized that what the Senate and House passed with Mr. Obama’s blessing would hurt union members with good health care plans won for them during labor negotiations. They were convinced at the time that the president would find a way to exempt union plans from the taxes on what were being called “Cadillac” plans, in much the way as he later exempted many friendly corporations from having to comply with other aspects of Obamacare.

It was only when labor leaders realized they were going to have to go back to their membership to tell them they had worked not only to make it impossible for them to bargain for better health care plans in the future, but for a plan that will tax their current plans that the decibel level rose. They are demanding that their president and friends in Congress save them from the very problem they helped create, but it looks like their pleas are falling on deaf ears.

It’s no wonder that as union membership continues to plummet. AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka is looking for ways to bolster labor’s influence. That he wants to do so by forging strategic partnerships with groups such as the Sierra Club and La Raza underscores the accuracy of my friend’s analysis in the ‘90s.

Mr. Trumka’s new strategy, announced earlier this month at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, amounts to an admission that the labor behemoth needs new, non-labor allies to survive and will, in the end, rebrand the organization as just another left-of-center interest group representing the views of its leadership and financial supporters rather than those of working people.

Think about organized labor’s traditional fights with groups such as the Sierra Club who, if they had their way, would eliminate hundreds of thousands of union jobs. The spotted owl, the war on coal, Canadian oil and fracking are no doubt the sorts of things the “new” AFL-CIO and its allies will fight as part of its new agenda.

Mr. Trumka’s plans will find favor with public-sector unions, but one wonders how members of private-sector unions such as the United Mineworkers and unions representing manufacturing workers — whose only real hope of survival is finding sources of lower-cost energy that could lead to a renaissance in American manufacturing and jobs for their members — will feel about this new direction.

One thing is certain: Mr. Trumka’s new AFL-CIO won’t be your father’s labor organization. My father spent most of his life as a union organizer, and my mother served as a president of the Women’s Auxiliary of the United Autoworkers. They spent their lives fighting to empower working people; their successors are spending their time fighting to empower government.

Different times, different goals.

David A. Keene is opinion editor for The Washington Times.