Vilsack's Labors For Unity

By David S. Broder
Sunday, September 10, 2006

The anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, and President Bush's speeches on his anti-terrorism strategy have placed the issue of personal security in the public eye. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, offered a different perspective on the question during a visit to Washington last week.

Vilsack said that the people he met on his just-completed annual walk across Iowa voiced concerns about security that were directly linked "to a feeling that they are in this alone," trying to cope by themselves with forces larger than they can manage.

It is not that Americans have lost their self-reliance, he said, or their willingness to help their neighbors. But the bigger institutions on which they once thought they could rely -- the government, their employers, their unions -- are now either unreliable or entirely absent. When federal, state and local officials left the victims of Hurricane Katrina stranded in their flooded homes for days, it symbolized a fundamental breach of trust. When giants such as General Motors and Ford laid off thousands of workers while other companies walked away from the pensions they had promised retirees, it removed another prop to confidence. And when unions increasingly lost their ability to organize and represent workers, the sense of isolation became even stronger.

All that leads Vilsack to the conclusion that the key to rebuilding national confidence and a sense of security lies as much within the nation and its economy as it does in stabilizing Iraq or in devising new safeguards against international terrorism.

That conviction underlies the rather surprising press event Vilsack orchestrated one day last week in his role as chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. He brought together traditional antagonists in intraparty battles: the leaders of the DLC, the longtime home of the Clintons and other Democratic moderates, and the leaders of organized labor. On stage with Vilsack were Al From, the combative DLC chief executive, and Jerry McEntee, the equally tempestuous president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, plus John Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO, and Anna Burger, the head of Change to Win, the coalition of unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO last year.

It was remarkable enough to see the feuding labor people together, but adding From was really tempting fate. He is an outspoken advocate of open-trade policies that are anathema to much of labor and has argued fervently for years that Democrats should not be beholden to their union allies. In turn, union leaders have viewed the DLC as a front for crypto-Republican, pro-business policies.

When Vilsack became chairman of the DLC last year, it raised eyebrows because unions have been a backbone of his support in Iowa. But he said he wanted to try to heal the breach, and he quickly began a series of private conversations with labor leaders, followed by joint sessions of DLC staffers and union operatives.

The upshot was the news conference, where the DLC formally endorsed a bill called the Employee Free Choice Act that is high on labor's wish list.

The legislation, which enjoys broad support from congressional Democrats, would require employers to recognize and bargain immediately with any union once a majority of employees have signed certifiable cards requesting union representation. Now, after the cards are presented, employers can demand a formal secret-ballot election before granting such recognition, and union spokesmen claim that intimidation and threats often cost them certification. Last year, Sweeney said, only 70,000 workers were able to form unions.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce dismissed the intimidation charges when I called but readily acknowledged it is fighting the legislation -- ostensibly because secret-ballot elections are necessary to protect workers' choices.

The DLC endorsement is just symbolic; most DLC adherents in Congress already are listed as co-sponsors. But all the news conference participants credited Vilsack for bringing the two sides together, and they said the dialogue will continue in coming months.

It has a double significance. For Vilsack, a long-shot candidate for the 2008 presidential nomination, it is the strongest proof of his ability to be a successful power broker.

And for the Democrats, it holds important potential. For most of the past decade, the DLC and its adherents have supplied the best policy thinking for the party while the labor movement has supplied most of the grass-roots organization and effort.

For the first time, you can see mind and muscle working together, a healthy development for the Democrats.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company