- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and other union leaders are meeting in New Orleans today to find a way to shore up their sinking finances amid growing internal demands that they become more bipartisan.
The labor federation, long a powerhouse in American politics, is running into hard times these days as a result of the recession and layoffs that have shrunk membership rolls and union dues, forcing cutbacks in union staffing and perhaps new assessments on locals that also are strapped for cash.
By one account, the AFL-CIO needs $35 million to $40 million to mount the kind of political campaign that the Democrats need to overcome the Republicans' fund-raising advantage in the midterm elections. Labor has raised about $25 million, but much of that has been spent.
Mr. Sweeney may call for a permanent union tax to make up the difference, despite grumbling that labor is not getting much from the Democrats for all its campaign support. Labor's once monolithic ranks also are showing signs of growing political division.
Unions like the 1.4 million-member Teamsters, the building trades and the Service Employees International Union say labor should begin doing business with whichever party advances their political and economic interests issue by issue.
"I question the wisdom of this 'all Democrats, all the time' strategy," said Mike Mathis, director of government affairs for the Teamsters.
Teamsters President James P. Hoffa is the leader of this new reform movement. He has thrown the full resources of his union behind President Bush's proposal now blocked by the Democrats to begin oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For Mr. Hoffa, the issue comes down to jobs, thousands of them, that the project will produce.
Mr. Hoffa, who is said to be working behind the scenes on other issues with the administration, has told his members and AFL-CIO officials that labor unions are not created "to become ATM machines for the Democratic National Committee."
The Teamsters chief is not the only labor leader breaking party ranks. Other unions have been throwing their support to Republican candidates at the state and local levels in recent months.
Dennis Rivera, president of New York City's health care workers union, has been helping New York Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican. Mr. Rivera has been organizing rallies for Mr. Pataki and packing them with union workers. He also has been attacking the two Democratic candidates State Comptroller H. Carl McCall and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo who are vying to run against the governor in the general election.
Andy Stern, the die-hard liberal president of the SEIU, worked with House Republican Whip Tom DeLay during the debate over federalizing the airport security screeners he represented. More recently, Mr. Stern has hinted that he may throw his support to several Republicans like Mr. Pataki and interim Gov. Jane Swift of Massachusetts.
They will not be the only union endorsements of Republican candidates this year, says Rich Bond, a Republican strategist who lobbies for several unions, including the carpenters and the service employees union.
"Services employees are going to be endorsing Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn of Nevada. They are looking at half a dozen Republican governors that they are going to endorse because they are good on their issues," Mr. Bond said.
That kind of support in the past would have caused political heartburn in the AFL-CIO, but not now. At a recent weekend retreat, many union campaign officials urged the huge labor organization to abandon its nearly straight Democratic monopoly.
"There was a recognition by the AFL-CIO and many unions that the labor movement is too often seen as joined at the hip with the Democratic Party and we need to do things to bring Republicans in," AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal told the Wall Street Journal.
Union endorsements are not the only area undergoing political change. Unions are beginning to give more funding to Republican candidates, too.
"When the Federal Election Commission's quarterly reports come out on March 31, they will show an enormous increase in giving from the Teamsters and building trades union to Republican incumbents in the House," Mr. Bond said.

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