Labor Is Back With Renewed Clout

A lot will be demanded from the 105th Congress

Ask the Republicans; they'll tell you. Ask the Democrats. Ask the AFL-CIO. "Big labor" is back.

That's good news for ordinary working people because the decline in organized labor's political clout over the past decade or so has led to a similar decline in its influence.

It's true enough that the AFL-CIO didn't achieve its November election goal of returning control of Congress to its Democratic Party allies. But what the AFL-CIO did achieve was more than it had managed in a long time: assuring labor an important voice in the new Congress.

Despite being outspent 7 to 1 by its political foes, the AFL-CIO played a crucial role in loosening Republican control of Congress. It helped defeat 18 Republican House members and helped elect pro-labor Democrats to three open House seats and eight Senate seats - not to mention the labor-friendly Democrats in both houses that it helped reelect in the face of stiff Republican opposition.

Moreover, although overall voter turnout reached its lowest level in 72 years, the number of union family members who voted actually increased by more than 2 million from the previous presidential election.

The union supporters accounted for 23 percent of all voters, up from 19 percent in 1992. Nearly two-thirds of them voted for President Clinton in November, and more than two-thirds voted for Democratic congressional candidates.

AFL-CIO on the offensive

Under the aggressive leadership of its president, John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO spent millions of dollars on radio and television ads and directed a major grass-roots campaign waged by thousands of union members around the country.

Rank-and-filers worked for months contacting voters via leaflets, by phone, and at community meetings. They frequently operated in conjunction with organizations representing minorities, women, young people, senior citizens, and environmentalists.

It was an extraordinary effort that put labor's opponents on the defensive for a change. Suddenly, Republican Party leaders and their corporate allies complained about the supposed excesses of "big labor" and "union bosses."

And suddenly many GOP candidates insisted they were not among the extremist Gingrichites specially targeted by labor and its allies, and wanted to resolve workplace and economic issues in favorable ways to working people. The AFL-CIO rightly expects that this attitude of moderation will prevail in the new Congress.

"Working families are back as a political force," says Mr. Sweeney. "Our issues ... were the defining issues of the election.... The 105th Congress will legislate under the spotlight of a working family's agenda, not a business-driven Contract With America."

Flexing its political muscle

Labor will demand a lot from Congress.

*It wants to lessen the growing gap between the rich and the poor and reverse the steady decline of the average person's economic status - in part by slowing corporate downsizing and closing and moving plants and factories that have wiped out some 2-1/2 million jobs over the past five years, even as profits, executive compensation, and returns to stockholders have soared.

*It also wants to reform the labor laws in ways that will strengthen the bargaining power of workers and their unions, promise greater on-the-job safety, and guarantee health care, pensions, job training, and other essentials to the millions of people who need them.

That's undoubtedly far more than labor can expect, despite its new political muscle. But it is certain that, at a minimum, labor's renewed clout will help keep the Republican congressional majority from the extremism of the 104th Congress that threatened to give even more to the relatively few at the very top of the income scale and even less to the poor and middle class below them.

The AFL-CIO, however, has only just begun to fight.

"We are not going to be pushed around ever again," promises Linda Chavez-Thompson, the labor federation's executive vice president. "We built an organization of working people across this country and no one can take it away from us.

"We are alive again."

Dick Meister covers labor and political issues from San Francisco.

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