- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2002

One of the most far-reaching changes going on in politics today can be found in the ranks of organized labor, which spells trouble for Democrats and possible gains for Republicans.
Top union officials are breaking away from the lockstep, Democratic loyalties of the past. The Bush administration is developing a cozier relationship with the Teamsters, the carpenters, the Services Employees International and other unions. The AFL-CIO is suffering from shrinking membership and a cash-strapped treasury, and some of its unions could bolt the Democratic-dominated labor federation.
Union officials and lobbyists are more openly critical of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's leadership, blaming him for creating a huge political bureaucracy that has forgotten the bread-and-butter economic issues important to rank-and-file members.
A growing number of labor union chiefs, embracing the leadership of Teamster President James P. Hoffa, are concluding they can no longer afford to be beholden to a single party. More and more unions are shopping around for the best deals that serve their members' economic interests and are finding they can do business with Republicans.
"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 unions to Republican incumbents in the House," said Rich Bond, a Republican adviser to several major unions in D.C.
Mr. Hoffa is the architect of this new strategy that now threatens Mr. Sweeney's power. He has thrown the full weight of his immense union behind President Bush's energy plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which would create thousands of union jobs. And he is working with the White House on other issues, from amnesty for illegal immigrant workers to health-care reform.
He has told his members and AFL-CIO officials that the unions were not created "to become ATM machines for the Democratic National Committee."
"I question the wisdom of this 'all Democrats, all the time' strategy," said Mike Mathis, chief Washington lobbyist for the Teamsters. "We need a significant number of Republicans to support us on a wide range of issues."
Other union leaders are following that strategy. Dennis Rivera, who runs New York City's health-care employees union, has been helping Republican Gov. George Pataki, and packing Pataki rallies with union members. Not only that, he has been attacking the two Democrats vying to oppose Mr. Pataki in November, State Comptroller H. Carl McCall and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who are outraged by Mr. Rivera's desertion from party ranks.
The big issue for Mr. Rivera is state wages for his members, and Mr. Pataki has promised to raise them. Mr. Rivera, a member of the Democratic National Committee, accuses Mr. Cuomo and Mr. McCall of demagoguing the issue and taking his union for granted.
Even Andy Stern, the die-hard liberal president of the Services Employees Union, is playing footsie with the GOP. Mr. Stern worked closely with House Republican Whip Tom DeLay, and against the AFL-CIO, in the battle over federalizing airport security screeners whom he represents. Recently, he hinted he might support Mr. Pataki and interim Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift.
There is trouble elsewhere in union ranks. Earlier this month, the 66 unions of the AFL-CIO met in New Orleans and voted to increase union dues to raise more than $17 million for its depleted campaign war chest. The Teamsters opposed the dues increase.
The AFL-CIO is running into big money troubles this year. When the carpenters union pulled out of the federation a year ago, it reduced AFL-CIO annual funds by at least $8 million, money that is going to be hard to recover in an era of shrinking union membership.
All this internal division and upheaval has resulted in some reappraisals within the AFL-CIO hierarchy. Gerald McEntee, the AFL-CIO political chairman, goes so far as to suggest that "maybe we step back from the federation's political program."
Even AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal now concedes 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."
If that was not enough to rattle Democratic leaders here, they were really shook up when they read what Mr. Rosenthal said at the end of the New Orleans meeting: "We're not saying that our goal is to have a Democratic majority in the House. We want to have a pro-working family majority in the House."
White House political operatives Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman have been working behind the scenes to compete more aggressively with Democrats for union support. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao addressed the AFL-CIO's last meeting and has met with several dozen labor leaders in recent months. Insiders say the administration and Republican leaders are at work on forging some surprising political alliances with key unions on future issues.
No one can say for sure where all this is headed, but several things are clear at this point. The old Democratic-labor monopoly is beginning to break up. Key unions are rediscovering the increased leverage power that comes with political choice. And the Bush Republicans are eager to say "let's deal."

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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