Last December, the national leaders of the AFL-CIO unveiled a $1 million radio and TV ad campaign attacking freshman members of Congress -- myself included -- for supporting a balanced budget. The ads grossly mischaracterized this vote as being "against working families."
Newly installed AFL-CIO President John Sweeney predicted that the ads would flood congressional offices with "hundreds" of angry calls. As it turned out, Mr. Sweeney was only partially right.
Approximately 90 percent of the several dozen calls I received supported my vote. Many callers even used the AFL-CIO's "800" number to charge their toll calls directly to the federation.
This episode illustrates the extent to which big labor bosses will work to promote their own agenda -- even at the expense of the working men and women they purport to represent.
Union membership as a percentage of the work force has steadily declined in recent decades -- from 34.7 percent in 1954 to 15.8 percent in 1992. The absolute number of union members also has fallen -- from 20.2 million in 1978 to 16.4 million in 1992. As the number of unionized workers has dwindled, so has the political clout of union elites.
In 1984 rank-and-file workers voted to re-elect President Ronald Reagan -- despite the fact that Democrat Walter Mondale was labor's anointed candidate.
In 1994, 40 percent of labor voters supported Republican congressional candidates over Democratic incumbents backed by their leadership.
Today's rank-and-file worker has clearly shown a willingness to keep his own counsel (and to vote according to his interests) when deciding which candidates to support.
A recent AFL-CIO internal poll confirms this trend. According to published reports, the poll revealed that union members do not identify exclusively with a single political party or ideology, are unwilling to let national leaders determine how they will vote, and are not motivated by narrowly cast labor issues.
The days in which members' votes could be bartered away en bloc through back room negotiations are over.
Since the 1994 election, big labor bosses have embarked on a lonely and frustrating quest for political relevance. Rather than implementing reforms intended to make unions more representative of their modern membership, they have chosen instead to wager millions of dollars extracted from working people in a last-ditch defense of the political status quo.
In February, AFL-CIO President Sweeney announced that the federation will spend an unprecedented $35 million to defeat 75 incumbent members of Congress.
Approximately $20 million will be spent on advertising; the rest on hiring, training and placing paid activists in each targeted district to campaign for the Democrats.
There is nothing wrong with groups of all philosophical stripes participating in the political process. However, the AFL-CIO's activities are not financed through voluntary contributions, but rather through two new "taxes" to be levied directly on union members.
On March 25, the AFL-CIO approved a one-year special assessment on each of its member unions to cover the cost of its 1996 political campaign. This assessment will raise $25 million of the $35 million sought by Mr. Sweeney.
Though 40 percent of union voters supported Republican congressional candidates in 1994, all funds raised under this proposal will be spent on behalf of Democrats. In other words, AFL-CIO leaders in Washington are engaging in political activities which many working people are subsidizing but do not personally support.
Moreover, the AFL-CIO has entered into a lucrative credit card deal that will net the federation and its member unions $375 million over five years. The federation will receive a portion of the annual fees paid by union members and half of all interest payments. Profits will help bolster the federation's political activities.
The credit card deal is an innovative form of usury. Because the federation will receive half of all interest payments, union members will pay higher rates than banks could otherwise make available.
Second, the AFL-CIO's past and proposed future political activities may violate federal law. Under current election law, unions may spend unlimited amounts of money on "informational campaigns" to "educate" members on candidates stands on issues.
However, unions are expressly prohibited from using dues paid by members to engage in "active electioneering" in federal campaigns. But Project '95 -- a political advocacy organization established by the AFL-CIO -- hired a political operative to work with local Democratic activists to recruit challengers to incumbent Republican Congressman Phil English of Pennsylvania.
Project '95 is funded not by voluntary contributions, but by union members' dues. A complaint regarding Project '95's activities is pending before the Federal Election Commission.
Federal election law also prohibits unions from spending funds to "expressly advocate" the defeat or election of candidates for federal office. Last year, unions spent a total of $20 million on ads attacking specific members of Congress in their districts -- all in the name of "education."
It is uncertain what impact the AFL-CIO's political activities will have on the 1996 elections. However, it is doubtful that labor bosses will succeed in imposing their own personal agenda on rank-and-file members.
The recent Senate election in Oregon, in which Democrat Ron Wyden edged out Republican Gordon Smith by 18,000 votes, is a case in point. The AFL-CIO, which maintained a presence throughout the campaign, was quick to claim credit. However, a strong pro-Wyden effort by environmental groups played a key role in his victory.
Additionally, while participation was up among union members -- due in part to the mail-in voting system used in Oregon -- there is no evidence that any philosophical transformation took place. Polling conducted by the Teamsters showed that 38 percent of their members supported Smith -- not far from the 40 percent of union votes garnered by Republican candidates in 1994.
A growing percentage of union members support a balanced budget, welfare reform, limitations on HUD and federal bureaucracies, solvency for Medicare, and tax relief. If John Sweeney is serious about representing the interests of "working families," he should use his union's resources to help rank-and-file members achieve the agenda they obviously want.
Spending millions of dollars in membership dues paid by working people will not bring the big labor bosses the degree of relevance they once enjoyed. If anything, it will only hasten their journey to the political graveyard.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, represents Maryland's 2nd District in Congress.
Pub Date: 4/14/96