Teamsters Threaten Democrats

Posted July 18, 2003 at 6:54pm

Deepening questions about organized labor’s role in the 2004 elections crystallized in a pair of key developments last week, as new strains emerged between House Democrats and one fickle union ally, while the AFL-CIO moved to quell discord between rival union presidents that has threatened to hamstring voter outreach operations.

Knowledgeable insiders said Teamsters chief James Hoffa vowed to cut off all political support for the House Democrats if the party’s leadership in that chamber backs a measure this week promoting free trade with Chile and Singapore.

Hoffa made the threat in what well-placed sources described as a tense phone call with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has remained uncommitted on the measures.

Both the Teamsters and Pelosi’s office declined to discuss the phone call. But one senior Democratic source familiar with its details said, “The basic message [on the trade agreements] was, ‘You guys are going to regret this.’”

Hoffa is expected to follow up, perhaps as early as Tuesday, with a public event intended to highlight the Teamsters’ determination to hold Democrats “accountable” for their trade votes.

The dust-up could hardly come at a more sensitive moment in relations between organized labor and the House Democrats, who worry that the unions may forsake the House battle next year for the presidential race.

Recent weeks have seen a distinct sharpening of tensions between the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman over alleged comments by the labor official that characterized the House Democrats’ prospects in the next elections as verging on hopeless.

The alleged remarks drew cries of protest from DCCC chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) and other Democratic leaders. But the concern is that the damage may already be done — in signaling to unions that they don’t have a stake in the House.

“She hasn’t said very nice things about us on the record, and it hasn’t been very helpful,” one senior DCCC official said.

Added one senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill, “House Democrats have been fighting day-in, day-out to protect the interests of working families. For organized labor to say we don’t have a chance — or that [the House battle] is not important — is not the right message to send, and it is not appreciated.”

Ackerman did not respond to a call seeking comment.

The contretemps highlight a creeping sense of dismay among House Democrats at the extent to which their political destiny is now tied up with labor — a development brought on primarily by campaign finance changes that have shifted unrestricted soft money to nominally unaligned outside groups.

The groups — formed among traditional party allies in labor and elsewhere — are expected to provide much of the party’s ground support in the next elections. But they don’t necessarily share the same interests as the DCCC.

In fact, the Chile and Singapore trade measures are little more than irritants. Capitol Hill sources say Hoffa has made it abundantly clear that in fact his true target is an eventual free-trade arrangement with all the nations of Central America, called CAFTA.

“CAFTA makes NAFTA look like chump change,” one senior Democratic aide said, referring to the battle over free trade with Canada and Mexico in the 1990s.

But Chile and Singapore nonetheless have taken on deep symbolic significance for Hoffa, as potentially the first time in the “modern era” that the Democratic leader and whip, as well as the chairman of the DCCC, have all opposed the Teamsters on a trade matter.

Matsui and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have already announced their support for the Chile and Singapore initiatives.

In spite of impressions that have taken hold in labor, Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said the Leader has “not decided” how she will vote on the trade measures.

Meanwhile, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney last week brokered a tentative deal with warring labor bosses by creating a second tax-exempt organization inside the labor movement intended to turn out pro-union voters.

In the nearest term, the new group manifests an effort to stanch further bloodletting between bitter rivals Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and Service Employees International Union President Andrew Stern.

The latest row has centered around the Partnership for America’s Families, a group headed by former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal that had been expected to handle the bulk of labor’s voter outreach activities this cycle.

McEntee noisily quit the partnership’s board back in May following a fall-out with Rosenthal — only to see himself replaced on a reconstituted board by Stern. The arrangement brought on major concerns of a political split that could damage organized labor’s efforts in the 2004 elections.

Plans for the new organization were unveiled during a Wednesday meeting of the AFL-CIO’s political committee, which is chaired by McEntee.

No decision has been made about how much money will be steered to the new group, although Rosenthal had anticipated that his organization would receive as much as $20 million from labor unions and another $10 million from other donors.

Labor officials said funding questions are expected to be decided in Chicago, at the Aug. 5 meeting of labor’s executive council.

Stern will continue to chair Rosenthal’s partnership, while McEntee will serve as chairman of the new organization, according to sources who attended Wednesday’s meeting.

Richard Trumka, another top AFL-CIO official, will also serve on the board for the new group.

Doug Sosnik, a White House political director under former President Clinton, will run the new 527, said the sources. Sosnik is close to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

Sosnik did not return several calls seeking comment.

McEntee had been chairman of Rosenthal’s organization, but the two had a very public falling out back in May, reportedly over Rosenthal’s unwillingness to provide funds to minority labor groups run by McEntee allies.

Rosenthal, however, insisted that the creation of a second 527 focused on getting out the union vote next year would not hamper his operations in any way.

“The Partnership will move forward as planned to have a massive grassroots effort to educate and organize voters on how the Bush administration’s policies are affecting them,” said Sujata Tejwani, communications director for the Partnership for America’s Families.

Tejwani declined to state how much her organization had raised so far this cycle. “We are on track to reach our fundraising goals.”

The struggle between McEntee and Stern has been viewed by many labor insiders as a prelude to the coming battle to succeed Sweeney. It has alarmed many senior labor officials and Democratic strategists who worry that Democrats will suffer next year without a strong union get-out-the-vote program as they face an very well-financed GOP machine united behind Bush.

“This is an opportunity to put this all behind them, but I don’t know if they will,” said one labor official close to the issue. “These guys need to grow up.”