Unions have few victories to celebrate

Goals of labor movement stymied in 2002 Congress

September 01, 2002|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Parades and rallies across the nation tomorrow will salute the union cause. But when it comes to its national agenda, organized labor has little to celebrate.

Labor unions have failed during this Congress to achieve many items on their wish list for workers - from benefit improvements to wage increases - and are having to fend off a threat to their very right to unionize.

For all its legendary political influence and ability to turn out union members to tilt elections, the labor movement has been unable to translate those attributes into legislative victories. On trade, health care, wages and workplace safety rules, labor has repeatedly seen its goals thwarted this year.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, acknowledges some disappointment that, despite labor's success in mobilizing voters in the last election, lawmakers haven't addressed many top concerns of workers.

"We said from the very beginning that this was not a short-term plan," said Sweeney, who heads the umbrella federation of 65 major unions. "We're confident that over a period of time, we're going to see continuous growth and movement."

The federation is assembling what Sweeney calls "the biggest grass-roots mobilization of working families in history" to try to hand Democrats control of both houses of Congress.

Labor leaders say they have been up against impossible odds: a popular Republican president who has seized the initiative on some employee issues, a disciplined conservative GOP leadership in the House and a close alliance between corporations and Republicans.

President Bush, backed by Republican leaders, has defused some of labor's arguments by pushing his solutions to issues once seen as the exclusive domain of Democrats, such as pension reform and prescription drugs.

"This administration has really usurped some of those arguments by being at the table very early and often," says Sandy Boyd, the head of human resource policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.

The Republicans' strategy works partly because of the cooperation of 20 to 30 moderate "New Democrats" in Congress who have joined with Republicans to back some of business leaders' priorities.

"The Republicans wrap themselves around whatever the Democrats are doing, and the New Democrats make it very difficult, if not impossible, to create any space between them," said Roger Tauss, legislative director of the Transport Workers Union.

Labor's fights are by no means over for the year.

When Congress returns to Washington this week, the first item on the Senate's agenda will be a homeland security bill that has become the unlikely battleground for a debate over union rights.

Democrats want to ensure that the new department's roughly 170,000 employees have the right to join unions. But Bush wants to be able to deny them civil service protections when national security is at stake.

Debate over pensions

Next up in the Senate after that will be a debate over pensions, which might afford labor unions a chance to push for more corporate reforms or wage increases and tax breaks to encourage hiring.

Also, labor might yet secure a vote this fall to force the Labor Department to develop ergonomics rules to prevent repetitive-motion injuries on the job.

But union leaders do not expect to win many of those fights unless Democrats gain back the House, and hold onto the Senate, in the November elections.

"We can sort of tinker around the edges in this Congress, but I think it's going to take a real shift in power to make some of these big changes," said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's legislative director.

Even as Republicans resist some of organized labor's priorities, Bush has collaborated with certain unions to try to advance his agenda.

The White House, for example, has collaborated with the Teamsters to try to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Republicans are also working with builders' unions to back terrorism insurance legislation. Unions see both as openings to create jobs, though neither initiative has won approval.

"In each of these cases, members of organized labor have benefited or will benefit," said Ken Mehlman, the White House political director. "And in each of these cases, the president had important allies in the legislative discussion."

The alliance between Bush and some labor leaders makes it harder for the AFL-CIO, which has been virtually monolithic in support of Democrats, to make a persuasive case for why rank-and-file union voters should not support Republicans.

Democrats and Republicans point to Bush's decision this year to impose tariffs on imported steel - a step cheered by steelworkers and the domestic steel industry - as a prime example of his efforts to court labor's support even as his administration blocks the rest of unions' goals.

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