Labor Tries to Mend Rift

Posted June 24, 2003 at 6:36pm

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney is scrambling to convene a meeting of top union officials Thursday in a bid to heal a growing rift within the labor movement that threatens the Democratic Party’s prospects heading into the 2004 elections.

Sweeney is attempting to mediate a nasty internal dispute among senior labor leaders, including Gerald McEntee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Andrew Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, over a planned multi-million dollar political operation run by Steve Rosenthal, the former AFL-CIO political director.

Sweeney, McEntee and Stern are expected to attend a meeting of the AFL-CIO’s political committee on Thursday afternoon at the federation’s headquarters. Sweeney will try to broker a peace agreement over Rosenthal’s organization, although some union insiders believe that may be impossible.

Nevertheless, Sweeney hopes to have this issue resolved prior to a larger AFL-CIO executive council meeting in Chicago beginning on Aug. 5, said several union sources.

House and Senate Democratic leaders, as well as the campaigns of the Democratic presidential hopefuls, are also monitoring the situation closely, although they know there is little they can do at this point, despite the key role that union get-out-the-vote efforts will have at the polls in November 2004.

Sen. Jon Corzine (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, warned the split “potentially dilutes the effectiveness” of labor in next year’s elections.

“I think united labor is a positive factor for all of us,” Corzine said.

But Corzine stressed that he is not getting personally involved in the intra-union battle. “There is a fine line here within the new campaign finance world,” he said. “Certainly, our public expression of desire to see unity on this process is an important ingredient.”

“It is very, very important for them to be united,” added Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “I am so sorry there is a split, but I hope they can heal it and pull together.”

Rosenthal left the AFL-CIO this year to head up a new, tax-exempt 527 organization called the Partnership for America’s Families. Rosenthal’s organization was supposed to receive as much as $20 million in contributions from big unions, money that used to go to the Democratic Party as soft-money contributions. Those contributions are now illegal under last year’s Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

Rosenthal expected to raise another $10 million from wealthy donors and other pro-Democratic groups, like environmentalists and abortion-rights supporters.

The combined $30 million was to be earmarked for a massive pro-union, and largely pro-Democratic, turnout effort next year, especially among black and Hispanic voters. With the White House and GOP Congressional leaders expected to pour millions of dollars into their own GOTV efforts, Democrats badly need labor’s help.

Rosenthal, however, had a dramatic falling out with McEntee, who had been serving as chairman of the board for the new organization. McEntee and several other union officials resigned from the group amid public allegations that Rosenthal was insensitive to the concerns of minority union members.

Stern and several of his allies, though, replaced McEntee on the partnership’s board, and some well-connected sources within the labor movement suggested the fight had really become part of the ongoing, behind-the-scenes over whether McEntee or Stern will be chosen as heir apparent to Sweeney.

AFL-CIO officials would not comment on Thursday’s meeting, although several union insiders said future participation with Rosenthal’s organization is expected to be the focus of the talks.

While having Stern on his board seems to assure that Rosenthal’s organization will continue to operate, how much it will get from the big unions and other large-scale donors is still up in the air.

A top Democratic strategist said the furor over McEntee’s departure from PANF, as well as the accusations that Rosenthal had problems with minority groups — a charge that Rosenthal vehemently denied — could hurt the group’s fundraising, especially with wealthy donors already fearful of running afoul of the new campaign-finance regulations.

“The more controversy there is around something, the harder it is to raise money,” said this strategist.

While Rosenthal’s partnership is expected to remain in operation, how successful it will be is unclear, although Sweeney hopes to make progress on that front Thursday.

“I’m assuming that Rosenthal’s program goes forward,” added a top union official close to the dispute. “The big question is what scale it will be and whether there will be other, parallel efforts set up as well.”

Rosenthal was not available for comment.

AFSCME was the largest donor to the Democratic Party in the 2001-02 election cycle, pumping more than $9 million in Democratic coffers.

Now McEntee may set up his own 527, and some union leaders want create a broader “Labor 527” not linked to Rosenthal’s group. Several big unions, including the Teamsters and the American Federation of Teachers, have either set up their own 527s or have declined to give money to Rosenthal’s group.

“Sweeney is faced with some really tough choices here,” said one veteran union official. “None of them are really good, but it’s important for labor to settle this right away.”

Mark Preston contributed to this report.