Unions urged to fund bid to boost voter registration and turnout Sweeney wants donations diverted from political parties, candidates

September 23, 1997|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney proposed yesterday that organized labor begin diverting money it now gives to political parties and candidates into boosting its own political influence, by raising voter registration and turnout among its members.

Kicking off the labor federation's first full convention since his insurgent takeover nearly two years ago, Sweeney called for a ban on unregulated "soft money" donations as part of broader campaign finance reform.

Such donations, he charged, are "polluting our political system."

Making no specific reference to the fact the the AFL-CIO is a major contributor to the Democratic Party, Sweeney asserted that "our political system is awash with dirty money, corporate money and foreign money."

Therefore, he said, "we must eliminate soft money because it is time for us to begin spending our money building real power by registering and mobilizing our own members. It is time for us to begin spending our money on our own media and grass-roots lobbying around the issues that matter."

The AFL-CIO's criticism of soft money -- which is given to parties without limit by individuals, corporations, labor unions and political action groups, ostensibly for party-building -- was not in itself new.

Sweeney called for public financing of campaigns and for free radio and TV time for candidates.

But Sweeney's emphasis on pumping more money into internal strengthening served notice anew on the political parties -- particularly the Democrats -- that organized labor expects greater support for the issues most critical to it.

Sweeney's words came against the backdrop of the AFL-CIO's renewed conflict with President Clinton over "fast-track" trade legislation that the labor movement fears will hurt U.S. workers. But he made no threat to try to purge members of Congress who vote for the legislation, as the AFL-CIO did in its earlier failed battle against the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Sweeney did say, however, that "we must stop giving money to political parties who won't give unions the respect we deserve, and we must stop supporting political candidates who won't support working families."

The AFL-CIO endorsed Clinton for re-election in 1996 despite its bitter differences with him over NAFTA, which it considered an unfair threat to U.S. jobs, and has been supportive of him on other issues since then. The president is scheduled to address the convention tomorrow.

When Vice President Al Gore spoke to the AFL-CIO's executive council here Saturday, he made no mention of the fast-track proposal, which would require Congress to vote only up or down on trade deals, without amendment. And no member of the council raised the subject with Gore.

Sweeney, for his part, asked the convention delegates only "to join us this month as we send a signal that free trade isn't fair trade by derailing that runaway legislative locomotive known as fast-track."

His remarks drew heavy applause from the more than 2,000 delegates, other AFL-CIO officials and guests in the Pittsburgh Convention Center.

The federation president's observations on internal political muscle-building dovetailed with a heightened focus on union organizing among nonunion employers, a keystone of the Sweeney tenure. He announced a monthly dues increase of 5 cents, to 47 cents, to raise $12 million over two years for a new mobilization fund.

"When we last met in convention 23 months ago," Sweeney said, "it seemed our movement was losing more than membership strength, political battles and public esteem. We were in danger of losing faith in ourselves."

Since then, he said, "we've created a new culture of organizing" by increasing the organizing budget and by trying to crack "entire industries and geographic areas" traditionally closed to unions.

But Sweeney noted that "nearly 40 percent of our own members aren't registered to vote, and if you project that into union households and family members, that's as many as 16 million potential voters."

He set as a goal the registration of 4 million new members of union families by the next presidential election, in 2000.

Sweeney, deploring "a gigantic cultural disconnect between professional politicians and working families," also set as a target having 2,000 union members nationwide run for office by the year 2000.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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