State of Disunion

Posted June 24, 2005 at 5:35pm

The much vaunted “ground game” of organized labor — one of the Democratic Party’s most crucial electoral weapons for many decades — has been hamstrung by an internal rift in the AFL-CIO, stalling plans to overhaul the $60 million political program in the wake of 2004 election losses.

Several sources confirmed that the program, led by the AFL-CIO, the umbrella group of the labor movement, is on hold, pending resolution of a split that pits five key member unions against the AFL-CIO leadership.

The split is “holding back planning,” said a political director for an AFL-CIO member union. “One of the great fears is that if we don’t get this together until September or October, we’ve lost a year in the cycle.”

A high-ranking union official within the federation called the program “frozen,” and Mike Mathis, political director for the Teamsters, said the federation can design the program, but cannot begin to implement it “until we’re all on board.”

Denise Mitchell, director of public affairs for the AFL-CIO, declined to discuss the current state of the program and the dispute’s effect on it. She did emphasize that it is “incredibly important to figure out how to move forward.”

Any weakening of labor’s clout would be bad news for Democrats. With campaign finance reform prohibiting soft-money donations to party committees, the party has come to rely heavily on labor (as well as outside groups known as 527s) to fund and organize voter registration and turnout drives.

Labor insiders said that Democratic lawmakers are nervously eyeing developments in the labor feud, but added that they do not see a way to mediate at this point.

Publicly, Democratic lawmakers and the party committees remain upbeat.

“Whatever the outcome of the debate, I am confident that labor will continue to fight aggressively for organizing rights and the future of this country,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said in a statement. “I know that Democrats in Congress will continue to work closely with all labor leaders in that fight.”

Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that whatever happens, it “won’t affect the Democratic Party or our candidates. We will continue our relationship as we always have.”

But behind closed doors, Democrats appear to be nervous. One high-ranking union official said he “can’t walk down the hall of [the] Rayburn” House Office Building without Members of Congress grabbing him to ask for updates.

At issue is a chicken-and-egg dispute about the best way to reinvigorate a labor movement that has been on a decades-long decline. The rate of unionization among workers as a whole has fallen from about 30 percent in the mid-1950s to 12 percent today.

Broadly, federation leaders favor investing in political activities, hoping to score wins for workers and thereby attract more to the movement. Dissident union heads see an inverse scenario. By spending more on organizing, they think union ranks will grow, and with it, political clout.

The dissident unions — the Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Laborers International Union and the needletrades’ and hospitality workers’ union, UNITE-HERE — made their disaffection public June 15 when they announced the formation of the Change to Win Coalition, a move widely seen as a half-step toward disaffiliating with the AFL-CIO.

The rebellious faction has pledged to take its demands for a change of course to the AFL-CIO’s convention in Chicago, which begins July 25. If major changes aren’t made, several have said they will leave the AFL-CIO.

AFL-CIO officials concede that the loss, if it happens, would be a major blow.

“It would be deeply hurtful to working people in so many ways,” Mitchell said.

Regardless of what happens at the convention next month, however, the rift has already had an impact.

Political directors for top AFL-CIO member unions have been mulling changes to the political program since December. The early consensus was that they needed a more consistent presence in more states if they are to turn electoral tides, according to a participant.

“The ideas were to have people on the ground,” said the member of the AFL-CIO’s political committee. “And to train and educate those people to talk to friends, neighbors, churchgoers and bowling club members about the issues, so voters don’t have some stranger knocking on the door, two weeks before the election, telling them what to do.”

In late May, the breakaway unions’ political directors skipped a meeting, this one called to discuss fundamental approaches to the federation’s political program.

In a letter to AFL-CIO Political Director Karen Ackerman, political directors from the rebel unions urged that the meeting be postponed until after the convention.

Over the objections of the dissident unions, the federation’s executive committee earlier this month approved a more than $250 million budget for the next two years. It calls for spending about $60 million on political activities.

The AFL-CIO executive council is expected to approve that budget today, again over the dissidents’ opposition. Final approval would come at the convention next month.

While the dissidents may have lost that fight, they argue the federation cannot roll out its program without their approval. They have withheld permission for the AFL-CIO to use their mailing lists, effectively blocking the federation from reaching about 40 percent of its membership.

“They can sit there with a pot full of money, but it’s not doing any good until the unions say they can talk to the membership,” said the Teamsters’ Mathis. “If everybody was on the same page, we’d have a plan in place, we’d be meeting weekly, we’d be strategizing, and everything would be moving forward. That’s not happening.”

Officials with the AFL-CIO confirmed that view. “This is not good news, any way you want to look at it, in terms of our ability to do the political work we do,” said a lobbyist within the federation. “Our enemies are absolutely ecstatic about this.”

The AFL-CIO’s Mitchell said she would not speculate on what the dissident group decides to do.

“We remain hopeful that we’ll come up with a unified program that everybody participates in,” she said.

In the weeks before the convention, Mitchell said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney would continue reaching out — “in every way he can” — to heads of the breakaway unions.

In sharp contrast to the fight over campaign politics, the flare-up has not caused immediate damage to the federation’s lobbying activities.

In-house lobbyists for the rebel unions continue to attend weekly strategy sessions at AFL-CIO headquarters, lobbyists say.

That has enabled the federation to continue deploying a united front on labor’s legislative priorities, such as efforts to block a Central American Free Trade Agreement and President Bush’s planned Social Security overhaul.