Labor mends fences for political gain

A year after their bitter breakup, former partners in organized labor are trying to heal some of their differences by joining forces politically for the November midterm elections. They’re cooperating now for the sake of those who depend on them.

That’s about 15 million union members.

Both the AFL-CIO and the breakaway Change to Win alliance are negotiating an agreement that would allow them to coordinate their massive effort to educate and mobilize workers.

Some hard feelings remain after organized labor splintered last year in a dispute about priorities, organizing strategies and personalities. Earlier efforts to pull the labor movement together have run into friction.

“It’s almost like a divorce,” said Anna Burger, chairwoman of the Change to Win federation. “It takes time to work things through.”

The AFL-CIO is spending $40 million on its political program this year — the most ever for a midterm year — despite losing about a half dozen unions to the breakaway group. Change to Win, which won’t disclose the amount it’s committed to politics, will spend in the millions of dollars. The labor movement supports both parties on occasion, but leans heavily Democratic.

Both sides are spending most of that money and effort on educating voters and getting them to the polls. They share many concerns, including worker’s pay, job security, and health and retirement benefits.

The AFL-CIO’s program to educate voters and turn them out became so successful in the last few elections that it became a model for all political operations in recent years.

Republicans and their allies borrowed from the labor strategy — and used those tactics in 2004 to win a very close election for President Bush. That has put pressure on labor to do a better job than ever of educating and turning out voters — despite the rift in the labor movement.

“We go into this election with a split labor movement and we will come out of this election with a split labor movement,” said Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO. “However, there is interest on both sides because of this moment we have to change the direction of this country.”

People from union households made up a quarter of the voters in 2004 and almost six in 10 supported Democrat John Kerry for president. In 2002, about a fourth of voters were from union households, and just over six in 10 supported Democratic House candidates, according to exit polls.

Union members from both sides are already working closely together in states like California, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania.

The AFL-CIO creation of solidarity charters, which allow members of breakaway unions to affiliate with the AFL unions at the local level, will allow many state labor movements to work closely together. About three-quarters of workers from the breakaway unions have joined the solidarity charters, AFL-CIO officials estimate.

The solidarity charter program ran into problems in April when leaders began quarreling about details of the arrangements.

That squabble highlighted the strained relations between the AFL-CIO with about 9 million members and the Change to Win alliance, with roughly 6 million members.

Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, worked out an arrangement in principle with Burger, who is with the Service Employees International Union. Details of that broad agreement are being worked out now.

“The unions in the AFL-CIO and in Change to Win will work together in many areas to coordinate their efforts so there won’t be a waste of people power and money,” McEntee said.

The unions from both federations are likely to cooperate closely in local and congressional campaigns, said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations from Clark University in Worcester, Mass. But he notes that organized labor is not quite as dominant a force in politics as it once was.

“There was a time when unions were powerful politically because they could ‘get out the troops’ on Election Day,” Chaison said. “Now unions are weakened because not only are they smaller and less wealthy, but they have competition in the ‘political ground game.'”

Union leaders from both federations point to the 2005 elections in California, Virginia and New Jersey as evidence of how effectively the divided labor movement can work together when necessary.

And they say the current political climate is motivating them to coordinate closely now.

“It’s a very exciting moment in our history,” Ackerman said.


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