- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

A rocky marriage devolved into a messy divorce in the last week, as three major unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers all split from the AFL-CIO. Some hoped for reconciliation during America’s largest union’s 50th birthday bash in Chicago, but more than celebratory candles caused the heat. Seething with dissent and years of frustration, several factions aired their dirty laundry, hanging it out to dry for the media and pundits to examine.

The breakup portends electoral disaster for Democrats, according to the press’ knee-jerk reaction. Divided resources, lack of focus and less coordination will handicap union efforts to help Democrats, pundits say.

But there is another interpretation. Instead of disintegration, the union split is more like a mutation — and for Republicans a potentially virulent one at that. Call them the Middle-Aged Mutant Labor Turtles; the 50-year-old AFL-CIO parts might just slowly and steadily morph into even more politically potent warriors, becoming increasingly toxic to Republicans.

Most Democrats focused only on the dark clouds. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, Chairman of the House Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Wall Street Journal that, “the general idea is unity is better than division.” A Democratic lobbyist agreed, “part of the reason for the split is that many feel labor is too close to the Democrats. This can only make the relationship less close.”

Republicans found nothing but silver linings. “Republicans See Opportunity in Labor Rift,” said the headline of Tom Edsall’s piece in The Washington Post last Wednesday. “This cuts the legs out from one of their main GOTV (get-out-the-vote) groups,” he reported, quoting a Republican Party official, who made the comment “with undisguised pleasure.”

Looking at the states with a large union presence, the loss of coordinated labor money and its ground game does indeed appear ominous for Democrats. John Kerry won narrowly in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota — all states with high union populations and a healthy number of electoral votes. Those four states combined contributed 58 electoral votes to Mr. Kerry’s losing presidential bid. Shifting less than a half-a-million total votes of over 16 million cast in those four states would have turned the election from a narrow Bush win to an absolute blowout.

But conventional wisdom in politics is like a mirage in the desert — always illusory and sometimes dangerous. What if the lumbering, bureaucratic, middle-aged AFL-CIO mutates into several, energetic, hi-tech political operations, capable of assisting Democrats through multiple organizations? What if, as many Republicans and conservatives believe, competition is healthy and empowering, and America ends up with a multiplicity of politically nimble unions, rather than one stogy monolith?

The mutating unions will compete to prove their new prowess. “I think what you’ll see is the emergence of competitive models of how they organize their politics,” one Democratic consultant told me. “Instead of delegating political responsibility to one union for a particular region, myriad labor political organizations will compete,” he said. Heightened competition might lead to greater electoral clout.

Unions such as the SEIU are also more amenable than the AFL-CIO to supporting moderate elements of the party, among them the New Democrat Network (NDN) — a move that broadens the Democratic Party and its appeal to moderate voters. “Traditionally the AFL-CIO balked at supporting moderate Democrat organizations like the NDN,” one Democrat with close ties to unions told me. “The SEIU and the Teamsters will increase their participation with these groups, which helps moderate Democrats.”

But recruiting success is still the key. Like a wave without water, labor cannot transform politics without a swell in membership. If breaks from the AFL-CIO result in such a boost, more clout could follow.

Next year represents the first test of the political punch of the Middle-Aged Mutant Labor Turtles. Many believe the AFL-CIO split spells big trouble for Democrats and a windfall for the GOP — a political version of the old country ditty “She Got the Gold Mine, He Got the Shaft.” But pundits predicting Democratic peril need to remember the most celebrated story involving tortoises — an overconfident hare thought he’d won, too.

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