Big Labor seeks to regain its political clout

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- When Democratic Party chairman Don Fowler attacked Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole the other day for blocking a Senate vote on raising the minimum wage, the Republican reply was that Mr. Fowler's remarks were a payoff to the AFL-CIO for its newly announced plan to spend $35 million against GOP candidates this fall.

If so, the labor federation wasn't getting much for its money. Vice President Gore, in an appearance before the recent special AFL-CIO convention that endorsed the Democratic ticket for re-election, had already vowed that his party would fight resolutely not only for the minimum-wage increase but also for a host of labor's other legislative objectives.


Mr. Gore assured the cheering convention that President Clinton would continue his opposition to the permanent hiring of striker replacements, employers' diversion of pension funds for other uses, "company-dominated unions" and Republican attempts to roll back regulations governing workplace safety.

More than a payoff to organized labor, the remarks of Messrs. Gore and Fowler underscore the rehabilitation of common purpose between the Democratic Party leadership and the labor movement as theRepublican-controlled Congress has moved in the past year to reject or trim pro-labor federal programs.


"On almost every topic that matters to working families," Mr. Gore told the convention, "there is a Grand Canyon of disagreement that separates President Clinton from our Republican opponents."

The new leadership of the AFL-CIO, the result of an unprecedented insurgency by a majority of the federation's union leaders against the establishment led by Lane Kirkland and then his long-time lieutenant, Tom Donahue, has decided with a vengeance to become a serious political player once again.

"Piper of Preposterous"

The $35 million will go mostly for radio and television ads "educating" working men and women about the voting records of targeted House Republican freshmen on labor issues. The effort dovetails, if it is not precisely coordinated with, the Democratic Party's objective to regain control of the House and strip Newt Gingrich -- called "the Pied Piper of the Preposterous" by Vice President Gore -- of the speakership.

The figure of $35 million eclipses by far what the AFL-CIO has ever spent in attempting to affect the outcome of congressional races, and the Republicans not surprisingly are crying foul.

Forcing the dues

Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour has charged that "the union bosses intend to buy Democrat control of the House with the forced dues of union members, 40 percent of whom voted Republican" in the last election.

Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's new political director, says polls of the membership indicate overwhelmingly that union men and women want the federation to become much more active in informing them about who is and who isn't voting labor's agenda.


There are internal procedures, he says, whereby members can prevent their dues from being spent against their wishes, but very few have ever resorted to it.

"For years the AFL has been seen as an inside Washington player," Mr. Rosenthal says. "Our strength is outside Washington. What we're doing is rebuilding that strength." Part of the effort will be the mobilization and training of 3,000 union men and women in key congressional districts in getting out the vote, and a "union summer" of recruitment with a goal of a million new members.

Reagan Democrats

An obvious objective in all this will be to bring back into the fold blue-collar workers who have been voting Republican -- the "Reagan Democrats" who defected in 1980 and still haven't come home -- by arguing that the Republicans they sent to Congress in the 1994 Gingrich "revolution" are no friends of theirs.

The rap at Senator Dole and other Republicans on minimum wage is only the beginning of a rejuvenated labor-Democratic partnership to reverse that revolution next fall.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau. Pub Date: 4/05/96