Democrats and labor mending their fences AFL-CIO rediscovers common ground, takes voice to convention

August 24, 1996|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHICAGO -- Fifty-two years ago in Chicago, organized labor's clout in Democratic politics was symbolized by an instruction President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave on the matter of his 1944 running mate.

"Clear it with Sidney," the great man said -- words that came to be synonymous with labor's political influence.

"Sidney" was Sidney Hillman, the powerful president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and Roosevelt's chief labor adviser.

FDR's first choice to replace Henry Wallace was former Sen. James F. Byrnes of South Carolina, but "Sidney" declined to "clear" him because Byrnes was seen as anti-labor.

Instead, Hillman agreed to Harry S. Truman.

This year, President Clinton already has his vice president in place.

But on other issues of special interest to Big Labor, it wouldn't be greatly surprising if Clinton were to tell his lieutenants to "clear it with John" -- meaning John J. Sweeney, the president since last October of an AFL-CIO that has been politically revitalized.

"I don't think they'll be clearing it with Sweeney the way they cleared it with Sidney," Sweeney says, "but we have a pretty good line in with the White House and the administration on issues of concern to our members."

Sweeney is a delegate from Maryland to the Democratic convention.

After years of Big Labor's being a laughingstock in Democratic ++ politics, of seeing its rank-and-file defecting to Republican candidates and its legislative objectives rejected, the organization is making such a comeback that the GOP is decrying "union bossism."

Indeed, it was in part because the AFL-CIO had lost the respect of its political foes under former President Lane Kirkland that insurgents in the federation decided last year to challenge him, forcing his resignation and the temporary elevation of his chief lieutenant, Thomas Donahue.

Sweeney, a Donahue disciple and at the time president of the Service Employees International Union, was picked by his insurgent colleagues to run against Donahue, and he won handily.

Although at 62 Sweeney is not a young turk, he has infused an aggressive spirit in the labor federation of 79 unions and 13 million members, which represents only 14 percent of the work force.

Taking office just weeks before the Republicans seized control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Sweeney set the AFL-CIO on a political assignment to put Capitol Hill back in Democratic hands in 1996.

He pushed through a dues assessment on the membership to raise $35 million that has enabled the federation to put 131 organizers in 86 targeted congressional districts for Democratic candidates and against Republicans.

The effort has been backed up by television ads in selected districts "educating" voters on which candidates are friends of labor and which are foes.

Ads on Medicare ran for six weeks earlier this summer on 178 stations, and a new one on pension security has just been aired in 34 congressional districts.

The television campaign prompted Rep. Bill Paxon of New York, the chairman of the Republican committee to elect more GOP members of Congress, to write letters to stations crying foul and urging them not to run the AFL-CIO ads, but to little avail.

Meanwhile, the federation conducted a series of 29 "America Needs a Raise" town meetings in key cities, at which workers testified about the hardships they faced and the need for a boost in the minimum wage, pressing the Clinton administration to pursue it more aggressively.

Whether or not such activity did spur the White House, organized labor saw key items on its legislative wish list getting more attention from the Democrats.

Also, Clinton vetoed the so-called TEAM Act that would have sanctioned more worker-management talks on workplace conditions outside union negotiations.

At the same time, Sweeney launched an extensive effort to reinvigorate the federation's largely dormant organizing arm.

About 2,000 young workers and students have been recruited, with free housing provided plus $210 a week, to conduct a "Union Summer" of labor organizing at 22 sites around the country.

Last month, the project kicked off a three-week bus "care-a-van" specifically to mobilize nursing home care-givers from Memphis, Tenn., into Mississippi and Alabama for union membership.

The tour began with a speech by Jesse L. Jackson Jr. at the site of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, at a time when King was aiding striking sanitation workers, and continued on to other civil rights sites of the 1960s.

nTC These activities have strengthened labor's claim for a more significant role in Democratic political decision-making.

They have also helped re-establish the traditional political partnership between the party and the AFL-CIO, which had been weakened by blue-collar defections to the Republicans and Democratic policies abhorrent to organized labor.

Foremost of these was Clinton's decision to support the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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