- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

Organized labor's lockstep political loyalty to the Democratic Party is not a sure thing anymore. Unions from the Teamsters to the carpenters are challenging the AFL-CIO's leadership and questioning its one-party policy
The latest example of this upheaval in labor's ranks occurred last week, when the cash-strapped AFL-CIO gathered in New Orleans to vote on a mandatory assessment on the federation's 66 unions to raise more than $17 million for its political campaigns.
The Teamsters, one of the AFL-CIO's biggest and most politically active unions, voted against the monthly dues increase. Teamsters political director Michael Mathis said it was because the AFL-CIO plans to spend part of the money for Democratic Rep. David E. Bonior's gubernatorial campaign in Michigan. The Teamsters are supporting Democrat Jennifer Granholm.
But Teamsters President James P. Hoffa has bigger problems with the AFL-CIO. He thinks the labor movement led by AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney has been too one-sided in its politics and its campaign contributions, that it has not paid enough attention to issues that union members care about most especially economic issues and that the time has come to work with the Bush administration and the Republicans in Congress when it suits labor's interests.
White House political affairs director Ken Mehlman and a team of outside Republican lobbyists have been working behind the scenes to build closer ties to the Teamsters, trades unions such as the carpenters and service unions on such issues as oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), health care and job creation.
Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao addressed the AFL-CIO conference Tuesday and urged support for President Bush's energy plan, which will create thousands of union jobs. She has met with dozens of labor leaders in the past year as part of a determined drive by the White House to compete more aggressively with the Democrats for rank-and-file labor support in November and in 2004 for Mr. Bush's expected re-election campaign.
Organized labor may not be the powerful political force in the midterm elections this year that it has been in past campaigns. The recession and subsequent layoffs, especially in manufacturing, have cost unions thousands of members and the dues they pay. And that loss has cut deeply into labor's campaign finances.
Division within the AFL-CIO's ranks threatens to further weaken the federation's financial clout. When the carpenters union pulled out of the AFL-CIO last March, it also pulled $8 million in union dues out of the AFL-CIO's treasury money that has become increasingly difficult to make up as labor's membership has declined.
"This is the only union to leave the AFL-CIO in many years, and it created a huge disturbance in our ranks. They don't like the way John Sweeney is managing the AFL-CIO because of the way he has built up a huge bureaucracy, playing politics here, rather than putting workers in the field," said a union adviser.
"The AFL-CIO's agenda has nothing to do with the economics of union members, and there is a chance that a couple of more unions may break away from it," the adviser said.
Mr. Hoffa is leading the dissident labor movement to begin working more closely with the Bush administration on issues that will help create jobs and, he hopes, more union members for the Teamsters.
"We need a significant number of Republicans to support us on a wide range of issues," Mr. Mathis told reporters last week at the AFL-CIO meeting.
"We have to build a base of support in the Republican Party. Any way you put it, the AFL-CIO dues increase is going to be seen as a pool of money to be used to beat Republicans," he said.
Mr. Hoffa, described by union lobbyists as a conservative on cultural issues and family values, has said that many of his members are conservative on such issues as gun control and abortion. Mr. Bush drew the support of about one-third of union household voters in 2000.
Administration officials say they are making headway in their campaign for union support on key issues and believe that Mr. Hoffa has had substantial influence in what they see as the break-up of old labor union alliances.
A small sign of the changes in labor's approach to the midterm elections this year came in New Orleans on Tuesday, when Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's political director, said, "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."


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