Labor's political illusion

Posted: Jul 28, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The bolt in Chicago Monday from the AFL-CIO by the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) reflects a long-building reaction to John Sweeney's plans a decade ago when he muscled his way into the labor federation presidency. He wanted to restore union power through politics. His project was a total failure, and the AFL-CIO is in ruins 50 years after its creation.
The scenario of the breakup was accurately laid out to me by Teamsters sources nearly a year ago. Sweeney would be offered a deal he could not accept. To keep the two big unions in the federation, Sweeney would have had to agree to a six-month tenure as president and a sharp reduction in the share of union dues to the AFL-CIO. The $10 million a year each saved by the Teamsters and the SEIU means money that has gone into Democratic coffers will be used for organizing.

 That's why Democratic strategists wring their hands, fearful that the financial drought caused by the events in Chicago will undermine the party in the 2006 midterm elections. But James P. Hoffa of the Teamsters and Andrew Stern of the SEIU have rejected organized labor's political illusion. They may not know how to cure what ails the nation's unions, but they cannot buy Sweeney's notion that salvation lies in electing Democratic politicians.

 When lifetime union bureaucrat Sweeney became president Oct. 25, 1995, in the AFL-CIO's first contested election for president, he threatened civil disobedience and other militant tactics "if necessary," but that was not what he really had in mind. It soon became clear he planned a massive effort for the Democrats and labor to regain control of the whole federal government that had been lost when Republicans won control of Congress.

 Sweeney's political illusion was that the conjunction of Democratic control of the Senate, House and presidency would somehow restore labor's health (though that alignment was not therapeutic when it existed during Bill Clinton's first two years as president). In any event, pouring labor money into Democratic coffers proved an absolute failure, climaxed by Republican victories in 2000, 2002 and 2004.

 Stern's distance from Sweeney's emphasis on politics was indicated by one of the few surprises at last summer's Democratic national convention in Boston. In an interview with The Washington Post, Stern said, "I don't know if" the movement to reform labor "would survive with a Democratic president." Although Stern backtracked after the predictable furor broke, he had indicated how unimportant John Kerry was in his grand design.

 Hoffa never has disguised his low opinion of Sweeney's grand design. When he became president in 1999, Hoffa opposed using the Teamsters as "an ATM for the Democratic Party." Seven years later in this week's Chicago press conference, Hoffa said he objected to the AFL-CIO increasing "money to throw at politicians."

 In his first year at the union's helm, Hoffa indicated he wanted to throw a little money at Republicans as well as Democrats. He visited the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, and the Teamsters' tepid endorsement of Al Gore came late. Jim Hoffa and George W. Bush exchanged official visits after the 2000 election, and the Teamsters vigorously supported the administration on drilling in ANWR.

 But one disappointment after another followed for Hoffa in dealing with Bush. The Teamsters faced opposition from the administration on the Mexican long-distance truck question and on tougher union reporting requirements. Worst of all, government oversight of the Teamsters under a consent decree was not lifted.

 The gap between the Teamsters and the Democrats has not brought the union closer to the Republicans. "The bridge between us and the White House is gone," one Teamsters political operative told me, "and it never will be rebuilt." That condition was underlined recently when, according to Teamsters sources, Republican House Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner said he could not help on pension portability desired by the unions because the White House was opposed.

 Hoffa, Stern and other labor leaders who are about to leave the AFL-CIO are still Democrats, but they doubt that sinking members' dues into the bottomless pit of political expenditures answers their problems. That may be the beginning of wisdom.