Labor Day 1996 Sweeney in charge: AFL-CIO role in Clinton campaign aims to energize union movement.

September 02, 1996

WHAT HAPPENED between the Republican victory in the November 1994 congressional elections and the triumph of Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden in Oregon's special election last February? The answer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: "John J. Sweeney happened."

Mr. Sweeney, chosen president of the AFL-CIO 11 months ago, has sought to pump money and drive into a moribund labor movement.

As a consequence, organized unions are as big a factor in Democratic politics as the Christian Coalition is in Republican politics. Mr. Sweeney is spending $35 million to defeat the enemies and elect the friends of organized labor in the Nov. 5 election -- more than triple the amount spent by Big Labor four years ago. Concurrently, he is putting another $20 million into a "Union Summer" organizing drive.

"There's a sense of optimism and energy the labor movement hasn't seen in decades," says Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California. "Over the course of the last two decades, labor has lost a considerable amount of power and influence," says union boss Gerald McEntee. "Now it has a second chance."

Labor's no-other-choice enlistment in President Clinton's campaign reflects some of this loss of "power and influence." Mr. Clinton disappointed the union movement by pushing hard for the North American Trade Agreement and hardly raising a hand in a failed effort to pass a law banning permanent striker replacements. His emergence as a balanced-budget, smaller-government centrist runs directly counter to labor's long-term interests.

Mr. Sweeney showed muscle in the Wyden election and in forcing even the Gingrich Congress to accept higher minimum wages. But his bigger challenge is to resuscitate a labor movement decimated by revolutionary changes in the American workplace. Union membership in the private sector has dwindled from 39 percent in 1954 to 10.4 percent today. Can he organize low-wage earners in long-neglected industries? Or is significant growth limited to teachers and other public-sector employees?

While Mr. Sweeney's bet on a Clinton victory over Republican Bob Dole seems pretty good right now, his winnings may be meager. Mr. Sweeney complains that a Republican administration would cut back on Medicare and tamper with Social Security. Ironically, a re-elected President Clinton might do much the same.

On this Labor Day, the union movement can justly celebrate its vigorous new leadership. There is, however, much to do before Mr. Sweeney's AFL-CIO can prove it is on the way back.

Pub Date: 9/02/96

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