A Labor of Love

Democratic Takeover Prompts Union Lobbyists to Set Out on Their Own

Posted June 12, 2007 at 6:30pm

Corporate K Street is getting a labor union infusion.

With the labor movement’s agenda ascendant as Democrats firm up control on Capitol Hill, several longtime union lobbyists are striking out as operatives-for-hire.

So far, the new crop includes Mike Mathis, a 23-year veteran of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; Chris Heinz, who spent 20 years with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters; Don Kaniewski, who worked 30 years for the Laborers’ International Union of North America; and Kristen Leary, who has worked on labor issues for both union and industry groups over the past decade.

Each lobbyist, for now, is setting up a solo operation and — with the exception of Kaniewski, who leaves the Laborers at the end of September — each one already is in business.

While each person cited personal reasons for making the leap — kids in college and the benefits of a more flexible schedule, for example — the Congressional power switch clearly contributed.

Labor unions supplied critical financial support to Democratic candidates and helped turn out votes to restore the party to the majority on both sides of the Capitol. They’ve stayed busy ever since dusting off legislative wish lists and pushing priorities largely ignored during a decade of Republican rule.

As a result, labor lobbyists said, corporate players who disregarded their worker groups for years are now anxious for help navigating unfamiliar territory.

“There is a basic lack of understanding in the corporate world about how labor operates — how we think and what our priorities are,” Mathis said. “There’s a desire to develop smoother relationships and cut back on potential conflict.”

Their pitch is to keep it simple. While umbrella labor and business groups clash over big-ticket items such as the minimum wage and a measure to ease union organizing, the labor operatives said they are focusing mostly on lower-profile issues between specific industries and their workers.

They hope to find areas of agreement on often-parochial issues to bring the camps together. “Where there’s common ground, there’s opportunity,” Leary said.

While an in-house lobbyist at the Chlorine Chemistry Council, Leary helped the chemical industry work with rail companies and unions for both sectors on rail security matters. The groups were divided over safety standards but found they could work together opposing the state-by-state patchwork of regulations.

Now, lobbying for the National Commission on Energy Policy, she’s working to bring a range of manufacturing unions closer to her client’s proposed cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. And, for the Pharmaceutical Industry Labor-Management Association, she’s doing labor outreach on more general wellness issues.

Bob McGlotten, the top AFL-CIO lobbyist before opening his own shop more than 10 years ago, said the specialized consultants’ value lies in their ability to help broker compromises. “It’s a talent very few other lobbyists have — taking the message to the Hill about industry and labor, and doing so in a very succinct manner that Members understand,” he said. “Whether on the Democratic or Republican side, lawmakers would like to get involved in issues where they don’t have to choose between the two. If you can bring that kind of clarity to the table, they’re very grateful.”

Mathis has a broader portfolio for his two clients, the Teamsters and the breakaway Change to Win coalition. He is helping his former employer with its full range of issues, including the card-check bill, trade and rail security issues. For Change to Win, he will be coordinating communications between the lobbying teams of its various member unions.

Heinz so far is only lobbying on behalf of the Carpenters, in addition to consulting on some construction projects.

Kaniewski said he likely will represent the Laborers and some corporate clients as well.

The four are in friendly contact and do not rule out working together as opportunities arise. But after decades at huge institutions, they all expressed a desire to be their own bosses. “You can do this with a BlackBerry and a cell phone,” Kaniewski said.

As one-man bands, they are following a familiar model. Terry Turner, for example, left the Seafarers International Union of North America to set up his own shop. Robert Juliano is in business for himself, as well.

McGlotten has been downtown since 1995, when he left the AFL-CIO after 28 years to join John Jarvis, who had left the United Mine Workers five years earlier.

He described the move as a relief, giving him the opportunity to focus singularly on his clients’ legislative issues without the distraction of internal union politics. The transition, he said, was easy — and he expects it to be similarly so for his new colleagues.

“They know the Members of Congress, they know the labor movement, and they know the employers,” he said, adding, “There’s plenty of work to go around.”