Union scandal gives Republicans needed political ammunition

November 21, 1997|By JACK W. GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Just when many Republicans were becoming resigned to the prospect that organized labor was ''back'' as a potent ally for the Democratic Party, they have cause to rejoice in the mess in the Teamsters union's leadership struggle.

Campaign financing

The disqualification of Teamsters president Ron Carey from seeking re-election, on grounds he was involved in draining nearly a million dollars from the union to finance his campaign, gives the GOP strong ammunition with which to attack the Democrats for their ties with labor in the 1998 congressional elections.

It mars an aggressive effort, ironically under Mr. Carey, to clean up the once corruption-riddled Teamsters and undermines the campaign of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, elected and re-elected as head of an insurgent movement, to put a new face and tougher political backbone on organized labor.

Beyond Mr. Carey's fall, labor's image has suffered a blow with the naming of other ranking AFL-CIO officials in connection with laundering union money for Mr. Carey's campaign through a longtime reputable political organizing outfit, Citizens Action.

The former federal judge appointed to look into the alleged campaign finance deal included Richard Trumka, the young former head of the United Mine Workers and now AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, among those who allegedly abetted it. Mr. Trumka is the prime rising star in the labor federation and has been considered a good bet to be the eventual successor of Mr. Sweeney, 63.

All this is an open invitation to the Republicans to turn up the volume on their never-ending lament against ''labor bosses'' whom they insist wield undue political influence over their rank-and-file members, including using their dues and assessments for support of Democratic candidates without the workers' approval.

''This will hurt labor's reputation generally,'' says Republican strategist Charles Black, ''especially if it reaches into the top ranks of labor, as it appears it will. It may cause a lot of Democrats on Capitol Hill to keep at arm's length from labor.''

Organized labor officials concede that the Teamsters case doesn't help, but note there has been corruption in unions, in the private sector and in politics for a long time, and say people understand that. In the 1998 elections, they say, the argument that organized labor is looking out for its interests will overcome the Republicans' continuing effort to warn of ''labor bosses.''

Labor's political successes since the insurgent group led by Mr. Sweeney wrested control of the AFL-CIO from its old leadership have inspired the Republican Party to step up its efforts to poison voter attitudes about organized labor, which under the earlier leadership of Lane Kirkland was widely derided as having become a paper tiger.

Enactment of a new minimum wage last year, a $35-million labor television blitz that reduced GOP strength in the House, and the recent defeat of President Clinton's bid for new fast-track trade authority, heavily backed by the Republicans in Congress, all demonstrated the effectiveness of labor's new muscle under Mr. Sweeney.

Those successes have spurred the Republicans to push legislative means to diminish that muscle, most notably recently in a campaign to challenge the right of unions to use workers' payroll deductions for political purposes. A voter initiative is being sought in California for what is called a ''payroll protection act,'' which would bar unions from so using payroll deductions without giving workers an explicit right to decline.

Labor officials concede that opposing this proposal is difficult, especially when it is put forward in simplistic terms. They point out that unions already have procedures whereby workers can prevent any portion of their payroll payments going for political uses they don't want.

A drain on funds

But the AFL-CIO is sufficiently concerned about the California campaign that it will be sending a team there to coordinate opposition among local unions. At a minimum, the ''payroll protection'' campaign will oblige organized labor to spend considerable resources fighting it that could be used trying to oust anti-labor Republicans in Congress next year.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/21/97

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