Change to Win Shutters Lobby Shop

Posted June 4, 2007 at 6:39pm

When five major unions riled the labor movement two years ago by announcing they were splitting off from the AFL-CIO, they explained the move by saying they wanted to focus less on political and lobbying activities and more on organizing.

So it struck some as odd this year that Frank Clemente, a former Public Citizen strategist who originally joined the breakaway group to help it develop issue campaigns, registered to lobby for it.

Leaders of the group, known as Change to Win, apparently agreed. Just four months after Clemente filed his first lobbying report, they let him go and shuttered the department he was hired to lead.

“Change to Win has re-organized its work on public policy and legislative issues and it no longer has an Issue Campaigns Department, which I directed,” Clemente wrote in an e-mail to colleagues on Friday, his last day on the job.

TJ Michels, a coalition spokeswoman, put a different spin on the situation.

The group, she said, “has not eliminated its legislative program at all. All of our legislative work has been done by Change to Win unions and our affiliates. We’re an organizing partnership.”

She said the coalition will take stands on issues whenever its members are in agreement.

But others close to the group said the decision to close what was emerging as a centralized lobbying operation points up major policy differences that persist among member unions, which have grown to seven — and an ongoing effort to refine its mission.

“Frank’s job was a very difficult thing to do,” said one lobbyist with a member union. “One of the tricky things about Change to Win, on the legislative front, is that we often come at things from seven different directions.”

The coalition was founded with major fault lines among its members on some policy matters already established. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, for example, had aggressively backed a White House push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, while the Service Employees International Union opposed it. And while the SEIU emerged as a vocal critic of President Bush’s plans to overhaul Social Security during the previous Congress, the Teamsters were largely quiet on the issue.

Immigration reform has been a continuing point of division. The SEIU and UNITE-HERE, a garment, hotel and restaurant workers union, largely have backed immigration reform efforts, seeing the influx of foreign workers as a rich source of potential new members. For other Change to Win unions — including United Food and Commercial Workers and the Laborers’ International Union of North America — immigrants threaten the jobs and benefits of their already-embattled ranks.

The debate over health care reform also has posed challenges to coalition unity on Capitol Hill. While the SEIU seeks an alternative to employer-supplied health care, most in the labor movement want to work within the bounds of the current system.

Change to Win founders formed the group by agreeing to disagree on some policy matters. Where they were of like mind, and said they wanted to focus, was on the need to revitalize a sputtering labor movement by bringing new workers into a movement that now represents just 8 percent of private-sector employees. The only guaranteed point of consensus on Capitol Hill, then, would be on proposals aimed at easing labor organizing efforts, such as the Employee Free Choice Act.

Sources close to the issue said Clemente’s role was never clearly defined. When he joined the group in March of last year, a coalition release said he would “help build long-range campaigns on health care reform, retirement security, and other key issues of concern to working families.”

According to one labor source, Clemente “facilitated communications among the affiliates, but he was not meant to be running a legislative operation. It was unclear what, exactly, the range of his portfolio was.”

Clemente organized a Monday morning conference call for the top lobbyists in the member unions and a biweekly Friday lunch, sources said. But with no clear mandate, his function drifted.

He registered to lobby for the group in February, listing the Employee Free Choice Act and minimum-wage legislation as his specific areas of focus, but also predicted work on labor, health care, immigration, retirement and trade issues, according to Senate filings.

Deborah Chalfie, his deputy, also registered. She is likely to continue with the coalition in its communications shop.