Labor to Push Agenda in Congress It Helped Elect

By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006

Six months before the November elections, alarms sounded throughout the labor movement. A flurry of memos from the field warned that high-level rancor from the 2005 breakup of the AFL-CIO was gumming up political mobilization on the ground, threatening to blow the Democrats' opportunity to retake Congress.

"Let us continue to fight, together," pleaded a May 4 letter from 150 AFL-CIO state and local officials to the leaders of the breakaway unions known as Change to Win. "Let us live. Don't walk away."

The warnings now read like ancient history. The labor movement, despite being more divided and depleted than it has been in decades, produced record participation in the 2006 campaign, contacting 13.4 million voters in 32 battleground states and supplying 187,000 volunteers to help Democrats match the GOP's get-out-the-vote machine, which was far better financed.

"What got us over the hump was a common enemy -- everyone was desperate to stop Bush," said Jeff Crosby, the AFL-CIO president in Lynn, Mass., who drafted the May 4 letter. "He was the uniter."

As the AFL-CIO gathers in Washington today for a post-election organizing summit, the labor movement is assured of a seat at the table in the new Democrat-controlled Congress, and it has an ambitious agenda: raising the minimum wage, restricting trade agreements, beefing up worker health and safety protections and rewriting the National Labor Relations Act to make it easier to organize unions.

Leaders across the movement have closed ranks behind House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi's 100-hour agenda, which includes increasing the minimum wage by $2.10 per hour, cutting the interest rate on student loans, repealing oil company tax breaks and opening the way for Medicare to negotiate prices of prescription drugs.

"We all agreed this is a major down payment on a populist agenda," said Charles M. Loveless, legislative lobbyist for AFSCME, the largest union in the AFL-CIO. "We will all be heavily involved. Everyone is getting marching orders."

The prime complaint of the Change to Win unions that left the AFL-CIO was that the old federation spent too much of its resources on political campaigns and not enough organizing workers. But in this year's elections, Change to Win unions invested record amounts for a nonpresidential campaign. The largest member union, the Service Employees International Union, alone spent $35 million on grass-roots mobilization; the AFL-CIO spent $40 million.

"We never said our differences were about politics alone," said Anna Burger, chairman of Change to Win and secretary-treasurer of the SEIU. "We said you had to organize to grow."

The AFL-CIO is now saying the same, noting that the election results make organizing more promising. Unions won pledges from almost all Democrats to support the Employee Free Choice Act, under which companies would have to recognize unions once a majority of workers sign cards saying they want to organize.

Business groups, headed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are making defeat of the measure a top priority, saying it would deny employers a voice and deny workers a secret ballot. But unions contend that the existing secret-ballot election process is tilted unfairly toward employers, with inadequate penalties for those who intimidate or fire union supporters.

"The Employee Free Choice Act is the most important work we'll be doing, because it's a key to succeeding on everything else," AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said in an interview. He said the AFL-CIO will use its post-election summit in part to stress to members that the measure is essential to rebuilding labor's numbers. Unions now represent less than 8 percent of American workers in the private sector, 12 percent overall.

As evidence of labor's new political clout, Sweeney is to lead a rally for the bill today alongside Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), incoming chairmen of the congressional labor committees. Both call it a high priority, as does Pelosi.

The measure is considered unlikely to pass because it would need 60 votes to survive a filibuster in the Senate, where Democrats have only a 51 to 49 edge. Even then, it would face a likely veto by President Bush. Opponents in the business community nonetheless are taking seriously the threat posed by a pro-labor Democratic Congress and an electorate that named economic anxiety among its top concerns in Election Day exit polls.

"Most employers have assumed unions are no longer an issue or a challenge and they don't have to pay any attention," said Martin Payson, a lawyer who counsels employers facing organizing campaigns and who is aiding the chamber's lobbying effort. "I spoke to 500 companies at eight meetings this spring and fall. To a person they were totally ignorant of the pendency of this law and what it would mean to them."

Sweeney said the AFL-CIO is talking with Change to Win about coordinating their campaigns for the organizing measure. The two labor federations -- still bitterly divided at the top -- are coordinating on trade, the minimum wage and Pelosi's agenda for the first 100 hours.

On immigration, however, a split looms. The SEIU is aggressively organizing low-wage janitors whose ranks are heavily immigrant and undocumented. Thus, it supports the immigration bill sponsored by Kennedy and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would create an expansive guest-worker program for immigrants. The AFL-CIO and several other Change to Win unions view temporary workers as ripe for exploitation -- and also a threat to jobs and higher wages.

"Traditionally, labor has been monolithic in that the AFL-CIO set the agenda," said Randel Johnson, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, which supports the immigration bill. "Now there are two camps in town, and we will be talking to everyone. Will that bear fruit? Certainly on immigration, it will."

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