After several years of modest but steady gains in membership and political clout, organized labor is bracing for potential setbacks under incoming Republican President George W. Bush. Unions poured money and energy into the campaign of Bush's Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, and stood behind Gore throughout vote recounts in Florida.
Although it's unlikely the new administration will be openly antagonistic to labor, unfriendly appointees and budget cuts to agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board could make it far more difficult for unions to keep their momentum going.
AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said labor would be watching appointments closely. "We're going to work to make sure that this administration doesn't just serve big business," Sweeney said. "Our hope is that we will be able to work together in a positive way. If it turns negative, then we're just going to have to react and rely on our supporters in the Congress."
Union leaders were particularly concerned about the ergonomics rules recently issued by the Clinton administration, over strong business opposition. Those rules, which require employers to redesign jobs if they are shown to cause repetitive motion injuries, could be rescinded by executive order.
Locally, look for another year of high-profile contract bargaining and possibly more crippling strikes. The two gorillas this year are Los Angeles teachers, who could walk off the job as early as February, and studio and television writers and actors. In both cases, recent negotiations have not been promising, union representatives said.
Along with supporting any such job actions, and hosting the national AFL-CIO executive council meeting here in February, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor--an umbrella group representing about 800,000 union members--is preparing for an active political season. The Los Angeles mayor's office and several City Council and school board seats are up for grabs. "We want to make sure that we have people in office who respond to the needs of working people in Los Angeles," said Jon Barton, the federation's organizing director.
Labor also is keeping tabs on the city's so-called responsible contractor ordinance, which requires Los Angeles officials to consider any past labor law violations of contractors when weighing bids for public projects. Regulations are being written for the ordinance, which is among the toughest in the country. It requires contractors to promise in writing to adhere to all labor laws during the project.