Friday, May 20, 2005

A looming civil war among labor leaders about whether to reorganize the AFL-CIO and turn more resources over to local unions threatens to weaken one of the Democrats’ strongest and richest political allies, Republican political strategists said this week.

The battle being waged by dissident unions, which want to move political power and money to labor locals at the grass-roots level, is being closely watched by Republican officials who see an opportunity to strike new alliances with labor leaders opposed to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

?[House Democratic Leader] Nancy Pelosi and other leaders in the national Democratic Party have got to be rolled in the fetal position under their desks to try to avoid being involved in this fight,? said Rich Bond, a Republican labor lobbyist with ties to some of the union leaders opposed to Mr. Sweeney’s presidency and policies.

Several labor unions, such as the hotel workers, the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, have sent signals they want to pursue a more bipartisan approach on some issues.

Some, such as the carpenters union which left the AFL-CIO four years ago, are giving more campaign money to Republican candidates — more than 40 percent to House Republicans in the post-2004 election cycle thus far.

?When you break down the party discipline and have an internal fight with your neighbor, your ability to coordinate that money is severely diminished in the short run,? Mr. Bond said. ?More and more money will go to Republicans and less money will be controlled by Howard Dean,? the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

At the heart of the political battle within the AFL-CIO is the demand by the dissidents to pour much more money into union organizing at the state and local levels and reduce spending at the national level.

?The core of our belief is that the election last year was lost because we did not have enough union members in the country,? said Mike Mathis, political director at the Teamsters union. ?If the union work force in Ohio were 26 percent instead of 17 percent, given the percentage of union members who voted for John Kerry, then Kerry would have won Ohio and be president now.?

But union membership has been in decline, from one-third of the labor force in the 1950s to 12 percent today, and only 8 percent in the private sector if federal workers are not counted. More than one-third of all union members voted for President Bush last year.

Labor union insurgents also want to end their one party allegiance and reach out more to the Republican Party.

?We think we have to be more bipartisan,? Mr. Mathis said. ?One of the problems is that we are seen as being totally committed to one party. There are Democrats who take us for granted and Republicans who we think we have a chance to work with who don’t reach out to us because they think they don’t have a chance with us.?

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