President, AFL-CI0 kiss and make up

February 22, 1994|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Sun Staff Correspondent

BAL HARBOUR, Fla. -- Ending three months of dark recriminations on both sides, the White House and organized labor have joined hands once again in this sun-drenched resort.

The Clinton administration and the Democratic Party dispatched a legion of officials and functionaries -- led by Vice President Al Gore -- to make the case before the winter meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council that, as Mr. Gore put it, "Our agreements far outnumber our disagreements."

Big Labor responded by agreeing essentially to put behind it the resentments over the North American Free Trade Agreement and to end the de facto moratorium on money for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the auxiliary organizations supporting Senate and House candidates in the November election.

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland seized on health care reform as the coalescing issue. At a news conference, he said, "We intend to campaign as hard as we can for as long as it takes" to win enactment of President Clinton's plan to provide universal and BTC comprehensive health coverage.

As a practical matter, the labor federation plans to put several million dollars into advertising supporting the Clinton concept and to turn up the heat on members of Congress, just as it did last fall, unsuccessfully, on the NAFTA issue.

With most business organizations putting themselves on record against the Clinton plan, the unions can be a significant ally for the White House.

The question of union financial support for the Democrats was somewhat muddied by Mr. Kirkland's legalistic insistence that there never has been a moratorium on support because there never was formal action taken by the council to suspend support.

It was also true, as the AFL-CIO leader contended, that affiliated unions were always free to support Democrats who voted "wrong" on NAFTA and will continue to enjoy that freedom.

Many unions opposed the free-trade agreement with Mexico and Canada out of fear that NAFTA would mean a loss of American jobs.

But, formally or not, the flow of money to the Democrats had been effectively cut off since NAFTA passed in November.

Mr. Kirkland and his advisers have been meeting privately here with David Wilhelm, the Democratic National Committee chairman, and other party officials to try to restore the close relationship labor has enjoyed with the party. "Our relationship with the DNC will operate as it has in the past," Mr. Kirkland said.

The union backing is an important ingredient for Democratic success in the major industrial states.

Although the federation itself can contribute only a modest $15,000 directly to a party entity, it can give much larger amounts in so-called "soft money" not subject to the same federal ceilings.

And the political action committees of union affiliates at all levels are a major source of money -- more than $40 million was channeled to Democrats running for the House and Senate two years ago.

Some of the 102 House Democrats who voted for NAFTA still may face retribution if particular unions that have supported them in the past withhold money this time around.

But Mr. Kirkland said all Democratic presidents in his time -- from Harry S. Truman through John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter -- had at one time or another taken actions that angered labor without destroying the relationship.

"The general record of this administration is a good one," he said. "The thrust of their objectives is the same as ours."

The AFL-CIO president compared the potential enactment of health care reform with the critical decisions in the 1930s that led to such reforms as the minimum wage and Social Security.

He acknowledged that the union leaders might prefer a single-payer government-run program but recognize that "our only real hope" is the Clinton proposal because it meets labor criteria by providing universal and comprehensive health coverage.

Mr. Kirkland and Mr. Gore seemed to be reading from the same page after a day in which a parade of Democratic leaders -- Senate Majority Leader George S. Mitchell, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt among them -- met in a closed session with the 38-member council.

In each case, the message was essentially the same -- that it was time for union leaders to recognize that, as Mr. Mitchell said, "the self-interest of their members" argued for maintaining Democratic control of Congress.

The unions, the Democrats noted, have an interest in a long list of issues -- including labor-law reform, trade policy, changes in the Occupational Safety and Health Act and striker replacement -- on which they will want the support of even those Democrats who broke with them on NAFTA.

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