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Labor Impaled on Horns of a Democratic Dilemma

Once-ideal 'marriage' of unions, party under strain since Clinton won presidency. But Gore still gets warm welcome from AFL-CIO.


PITTSBURGH — When President Clinton recently asked Congress for "fast track" authority in international trade negotiations, the AFL-CIO quickly responded with a million-dollar media campaign denouncing the proposal as a threat to the very lifeblood of its movement.

But when Vice President Al Gore showed up here Saturday to speak to the labor federation's national convention, its chieftains couldn't find enough good things to say about him. "A very special champion" of labor, and "one of the most honorable and decent men who ever served in Washington," were the words chosen by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

The apparent contradiction between the federation's fierce opposition to the administration's fast-track proposal and the lavish praise for Gore points up the growing political dilemma that vexes the nation's labor leaders: how to stand up to Clinton and--by extension--the Democratic Party that he has dramatically altered without cutting their own throats.

The bond between labor and the Democrats, once viewed as the ideal political marriage, has been increasingly beset by tensions since Clinton's election in 1992. What many labor leaders remember about Clinton's first term is their disappointment over his legislative failure on one front--sweeping national health reform--and his success with another initiative--approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which, unions complain, holds down wages for U.S. workers.

Both issues were decided when Democrats still controlled Congress, making the outcomes especially painful to labor.

"We used to promise our members that when the Holy Trinity occurred and we won the presidency to go along with the House and the Senate, peace on Earth would reign," said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. "But then we won [the White House] and it was more like the Bermuda Triangle."

Contributing to the less-passive role labor political strategists are willing to accept in their partnership with the Democrats has been a new energy generated since Sweeney won the AFL-CIO presidency two years ago. Also, a feeling of renewed clout among unions has been especially evident in the aftermath of the recent successful Teamsters strike against United Parcel Service.

The conflict that labor is feeling about its relationship with the Democrats was easy to detect among the leaders gathered in Pittsburgh. What's harder to discover is agreement among them on how to redefine their ties to the party.

That's not surprising, given that the debate is emotionally charged and highly complex. "It's not like if you ask six people, three will say one thing while three will say the opposite," said David Kusnet, a former Clinton speech writer who is now a consultant to union leaders. "Instead, you will get six shades of opinion in between."

Sweeney, for his part, soft-pedals disputes with the administration. In an interview, he credited Clinton and Gore with fighting hard "to protect many of the programs that Republicans wanted to attack in the [1995] budget debate, like Medicare, education, environment."


But, in a gesture for a more independent stance by the AFL-CIO, Sweeney on Monday endorsed a ban on "soft money" contributions to political parties--donations that are not regulated by federal laws and are at the heart of the current fund-raising scandals.

In a convention speech, Sweeney said: "We must eliminate soft money because it is time for us to begin spending our money building real power by registering and mobilizing our own members."

The AFL-CIO made nearly $10 million in soft-money contributions in the 1996 election, mostly to Democrats.

Stern, who among labor leaders is probably the most hawkish about breaking the traditional bonds with the Democrats, recently announced a significant change in his union's approach to politics. The Service Employees Union, he said, would no longer endorse candidates of any party and would make contributions to three other parties--the Republicans, the New Party and the Labor Party--as well as the Democrats. Stern also said he would meet with Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson in an effort to find common ground.

"I'm not saying [Republicans] are going to be any more hospitable than the Democrats," Stern said. "But I'm not sure that absenting yourself from where decisions are made is a very wise strategy."

Nearly as militant is Jay Mazur, president of UNITE, which represents workers in the needle trades and textile industry. "I am not disassociating myself from the Democratic Party," Mazur said. "But we have to use our leverage . . . for those issues and those candidates who represent us. And when they don't, we ought to oppose them, whether they are Democrats or Republicans."

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