WASHINGTON -- The biggest political news of last week was not Bob Dole's triumph over Pat Buchanan in California. It was the AFL-CIO's endorsing the re-election of President Clinton, with plans to spend $35 million to bring that about.
This Big Labor intervention may not restore the great Democratic coalition of the 1950s and 60s, but a labor-union political onslaught could all but guarantee Mr. Clinton a second term, especially with polled organized laborers now favoring him over Bob Dole by a 3-to-1 margin.
A $35 million campaign by the 79 unions in the AFL-CIO could mean a quick end to Republican control of both the House and Senate, something that seemed less than a Democratic dream just a year ago. That is why House Speaker Newt Gingrich is crying that there oughta be a law against such brazen collusion between Big Labor and the Democratic Party.
The AFL-CIO will assess each member 15 cents a month to build a war chest that will buy $20 million for pro-Clinton radio and TV commercials, pay for political education and get-out-the-vote campaigns, and drive daggers into the political hearts of some 75 Republican freshmen who won by narrow margins two years ago.
AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney refers to these new congressmen as "right-wing fanatics who have seized the Capitol," so it seems his unions do not plan to be what Messrs. Dole and Gingrich would call even-handed. Sweeney & Colleagues are out to make working men and women awesome electoral forces again.
How awesome? For a generation organized labor in America has been pathetic. The AFL-CIO slept through the twilight of its late leader, George Meany. Snoozed during the 20 years when labor's share of the U.S. work force dwindled from 27 percent in 1976 to less than 15 percent now.
Those just happen to be the years when the Democratic Party declined, partly because unionized workers were swayed by hot-button GOP rhetoric appealing to racism, and to demagoguery about school prayer, abortion, crime. Worker solidarity was all but forgotten.
Unions had succeeded in winning enough pay and perks to persuade some workers that they were Republicans.
It must be a comfortable feeling -- until you discover that the real, rich Republicans you've joined are downsizing the places where you work, or shipping them overseas, while they raise their own salaries and bonuses obscenely.
Have the 40 percent of union members who defected to the Republican Party finally wised up? A working man getting into a country club is an intoxication that rarely wears off. Mr. Gingrich is begging workers not to let Mr. Sweeney force them to cough up 15 cents a month for the AFL-CIO to use to defeat Republicans.
Don't be surprised to see legal and other efforts to block the AFL-CIO political assessment.
There remain fundamental disagreements between labor unions and the Clinton administration, particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement. But the AFL-CIO decision to spend $35 million to re-elect President Clinton says that, such differences aside, the great mass of union people see peril both in Senator Dole and in Mr. Gingrich's "Contract with America."
During the Reagan and Bush years American politics changed. Laborers, ethnics, the devout religious, some Jews and a brigade of new-fringe blacks drifted right, right and far-right. Right into a dangerous American morass.
Now here comes long-somnolent Big Labor, trying to show them the way out. The question is: "How many Americans will now follow a labor-union leader?"
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 4/04/96