Despite the fact that organized labor represents only 14 percent of the U.S. workforce, it promises to exert an unusually disproportionate influence over the elections this fall—for President, for the entire House of Representatives, and for one third of the Senate. That is because labor traditionally puts its strength behind Democratic candidates, and the Democrats are entering the election season more united than the Republicans. The AFL-CIO endorsed Gore for the Democratic nomination before the primaries got underway and it will go all out for him in the election campaign. It also hopes to help elect enough Democrats to switch the House of Representatives to Democratic control and to whittle down the Republican majority in the Senate. Since at least some of this could be the outcome of the 2000 elections, it is appropriate to see what such results might mean in terms of industrial relations and related policies.
While labor influence in U.S. politics has a long history, that history is not unbroken, and the actual issues championed by organized labor have been far from constant. In fact, today the union movement is attempting to shift itself from its traditional “working class” orientation to a broader representation of the now-dominantly middle-class labor force.
Organized labor, as we shall explore in detail below, has changed its specific objectives greatly over time: In the 1830s, it stressed such matters as mechanics lien laws and free public education; in the 1880s, it championed a vague, Jacksonian vision of a kind of producer democracy; in the 1930s, it worked to enhance unions’ ability to organize and toward ending the Great Depression; for much of the postwar period, it supported broadening the welfare state; and today, it is an active force to halt globalization and to preserve existing entitlement programs.
U.S. Labor’s Political Action: An Early Start
The United States is viewed as having lagged Europe in the formation of strong unions and labor-oriented political parties but, in fact, labor political action emerged here earlier than in Europe, and quite differently from the European pattern. In Europe, labor politics followed the gradual breakdown of feudal tradition; each group of “commoners” had to fight for the right to vote, which was first won by the middle classes (property owners) and only much later extended to workers. (In Britain, the paragon of democracy, this did not happen until the Reform Act of 1884.) And so, in Europe, traditional, rigid class distinctions lingered and by the time the working class received the suffrage, it had been imbued with Marxist doctrine; the result was that labor politics was dedicated to replacing capitalism with socialism.
In the United States, however, the absence of a feudal tradition and the democratic ethos of the nation, plus a growing economy that provided opportunity for advancement, prevented class lines from becoming rigidly fixed and deflected class conflict in the political arena. And U.S. workers had won the right to vote long before those in Europe; by the time the socialist doctrine was gaining adherence in Europe, universal manhood suffrage had become commonplace in the United States and winning the right to vote did not provide a cause for labor political solidarity.
Early on, during the period 1827–1833, U.S. labor concentrated its focus on political rather than economic issues. Workingmen’s parties appeared in cities including Philadelphia and New York, and, although some scholars question the “labor” nature of these parties, they were supported by urban artisans and fought for issues that were of importance to workingmen. Their platforms demanded free schools, universal male suffrage (some states still had property and religious requirements for voting), direct election of public officials, and abolition of imprisonment for debt.
Such issues, although of great concern to workers, were also of broad public interest; others that these groups championed, however, were more specifically oriented to the male workforce of the day—e.g., mechanics lien laws, factory regulation, the ten-hour day, and the elimination of competition from female, child, and convict labor. These parties, notably the Workingmen’s party of Philadelphia, scored some initial successes, but their demands were gradually absorbed by the major political parties, and with their reforms achieved, they disappeared.
Industrialization and the Power of the AFL
The transition from an agrarian, small-town society to an urban industrial economy in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, did not take place without conflict, as evidenced by the activities of the so-called Molly Maguires in the Pennsylvania anthracite mining region and the great railroad strikes that swept across the nation in 1877. In the 1880s, the Knights of Labor, a union federation, rose to prominence, and, while there was no national labor political action, there was a good deal at the local level, with labor fielding its own slates of candidates in a number of cities and towns. Their platforms favored such things as more spending on roads, schools, and libraries; weekly payment of wages; a ten-hour day; and balanced budgets.
The Knights’ program was as much a reaction to industrialism as to capitalism; following the tradition of reform dating from the Jacksonian era, they were intent upon abolishing the wage system and replacing it with producer cooperatives. While the strength of the Knights rose dramatically in the mid-1880s—from 100,000 to 700,000 members—by the 1890s, they had all but disappeared.
The union movement that triumphed in the United States was a “job-conscious” one, typified by the national craft unions that formed the American Federation of Labor in 1886. The AFL was a hardheaded group bent upon improving the conditions of its members within the existing socioeconomic order, rather than attempting to reshape that order. The stress was on economic activity, with each union attempting to control jobs and regulate wages in an occupation through monopolization of a scarce resource—the skills of its members.
The AFL deliberately turned its back on national politics early on when it eschewed participation in the election of 1896, in which the progressive forces rallied to the banner of the Democratic candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan. What political action the AFL did engage in was concentrated at the local level, dealt with nitty gritty issues rather than big ideas, and was nonpartisan, operating under the slogan, “Reward your friends and punish your enemies.” The craft unions tended to forge ties with the big-city machines to wrest benefits from them. Building trades unions, for example, wanted local ordinances that would insure that public contractors hired their members and paid union wages.
Labor remained aloof from national politics because there were no vital national issues of concern to it. Union organization was confined to a few areas of the economy and largely involved skilled workers, who had a degree of economic clout that was not dependent upon government. There wasn’t much to get excited about anyway, since government played a very small role in economic life, and most of the AFL leadership did not favor a bigger one—to the point of opposing unemployment insurance and other social measures that were favored by progressive forces and even some leading corporations. Indeed, many union leaders were Republicans, while some in the business community, e.g., the Duponts, were Democrats.
There never was unanimity within the AFL concerning its political policies. Some unions had populist (Machinists) or socialist (Ladies Garment Workers) outlooks. The Populist Party called for free coinage of silver, abolition of national banks, a graduated income tax, direct election of senators, the eight-hour work day, and other measures that were largely picked up by the Democrats in the 1896 campaign.
The socialists generally led the opposition within the AFL that sought a greater emphasis on political action. Indeed, the nation briefly seemed to be following the European pattern as a vigorous Socialist Party arose early in the twentieth century, electing mayors in a number of cities and even two Congressmen (from Wisconsin and New York). The Socialist Party, while calling for government ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, drew much of its support for its “immediate” demands, which were similar to those of the Populists. American socialism peaked in 1912 when its presidential candidate, Eugene Victor Debs, received 6 percent of the national vote, but soon withered with World War I.
From an Apolitical Stance to the First PAC
While the Socialist Party opposed U.S. intervention into the war, unionism thrived during it and the AFL was represented on the agencies that were established to further the war effort. In five years, AFL membership doubled, reaching 4,079,000 in 110 national unions in 1920; including unions that were not affiliated with the AFL, such as the railroad brotherhoods, total union membership went over the 5-million mark that year. A two-year postwar depression, however, saw membership plummet to 3.6 million, and even afterwards, in the 1920s, union membership continued to decline in the face of labor force growth.
There was a momentary flirtation with third-party politics in 1924, when a coalition of farmer groups, liberals from both major parties, and the Socialists supported Senator Robert La Follette, the Progressive candidate, for the presidency. The AFL endorsed him, but John L. Lewis of the Miners and “Big Bill” Hutcheson of the Carpenters backed Republican Coolidge, while George Berry of the Printing Pressmen supported Democrat Davis. La Follette succeeded in carrying only his own state of Wisconsin and the 1924 campaign marked the end of any serious independent political challenge from the left.
The Depression and FDR
Had unionism continued to fare well, it probably would have continued on its conservative path. But some union people contended that government actions, particularly court issuance of injunctions in labor disputes, were tilting the balance against labor. And then began the Great Depression following the 1929 stock market crash. This was followed, in 1932, by the passage of the Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act, which brought forth a very brief period in which government refrained from intervention into labor-management relations, and then, most significantly for the labor movement, the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president.
One of the Roosevelt administration’s first emergency measures to deal with the Depression was the National Industrial Recovery Act, which sought to encourage economic recovery by allowing the firms in each industry to get together to establish codes of fair competition. Section 7a of the act declared that employers were not to interfere with the attempts of workers to organize and bargain collectively. The spirit of the times, reinforced by Section 7a, encouraged renewed union militancy. Organization drives were launched by John L. Lewis’ new Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) to bring the millions of semiskilled workers in the nation’s major industries within the union fold.
When the Supreme Court found the NIRA to be unconstitutional in 1935, legislation to replace Section 7a was ready and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, sponsored by Senator Robert Wagner of New York, a close ally both of labor and Roosevelt, immensely facilitated the success of union organizing. The new CIO became politically active, recognizing the importance of a friendly administration to union growth and enjoying general agreement with New Deal policies. Lewis, the Printing Pressmen’s Berry, and Sidney Hillman of the Clothing Workers formed Labor’s Non-Partisan League in 1936 to support Roosevelt’s reelection.
In 1940, the Roosevelt administration turned to Hillman to secure the backing of the CIO (which, upon becoming a rival federation to the AFL, had changed its name to Congress of Industrial Organizations) in the face of John L. Lewis’ endorsement of Republican Wendell Willkie for president and the opposition of the Communists—now an important force within the CIO—to Roosevelt’s pro-British stance. By 1942, Hillman had concocted the nation’s first PAC, the CIO’s Political Action Committee, not only to support Roosevelt, but to secure a voice within Democratic Party decision-making.
Labor and Politics after World War II
While the CIO became involved in politics, the AFL continued its aloofness. But in the immediate post-World War II era, events unfolded that led to significant change. In the 1946 elections, the Republicans became the majority in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928 (and not to be repeated again until 1994). This led to the passage, over President Truman’s veto, of the Taft-Hartley Act amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, which the unions regarded as anti-labor.
The presidential election of 1948 pitted incumbent Harry Truman against Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Irate over the passage of Taft-Hartley, the unions supported Truman and the CIO officially endorsed him, despite some internal opposition that favored a third-party candidate. When Truman was reelected, all talk of a labor party died and labor drew closer than ever to the Democrats.
While the CIO had been politically “liberal” from the start, the conservative AFL had only become politicized by the New Deal. Many of the old craft unions had spawned industrial sections, which brought unskilled and semiskilled workers, including women and blacks, into their ranks and changed their outlooks. (The International Association of Machinists finally removed its ban on black membership in 1948.) Working people, moreover, had benefited from the Social Security, Fair Labor Standards, and other new deal Acts—and union organizing certainly had been advanced by the Wagner Act.
In 1952, infuriated by the Taft-Hartley Act, the AFL officially abandoned its nonpartisan policy and it and the CIO supported the Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson. A series of coincidences in November 1952 paved the way for eventual merger of the two federations and for greater stress on politics. The first Republican administration in twenty years was elected, and the unions feared that it might usher in an antilabor era and a repeal of the New Deal social legislation. Then, within a few weeks, the presidents of both federations, William Green, who had succeeded Samuel Gompers as head of the AFL in 1924, and Philip Murray, who had taken John L. Lewis’s place as head of the CIO in 1940, died. Their successors, George Meany in the AFL and Walter Reuther in the CIO, were much more politically oriented. Labor, moreover, had come to accept Keynesian economics and its emphasis on the role of government in ensuring prosperity; this, in effect had been established in the Employment Act of 1948 and whenever unemployment rose, labor would demand increased government spending to restore prosperity. With the 1955 merger, political action became a major focus of the new AFL-CIO.
The AFL-CIO’s major political instrument is the Committee for Political Education (COPE), a standing committee of the Executive Council. It is aided by Legislative, Economic Research, Civil Rights, and International Affairs departments. Briefed by experts in these areas, union people make effective witnesses before congressional committees. COPE seeks to get union members and their families registered, acquaint them with the issues and the positions of candidates, get them to the polls on election day, and collect financial contributions from them with which to aid preferred candidates. The federation also has full-time lobbyists who forge close connections to members of Congress, particularly through continuing liaison with their staffs. The major chronicler of labor and the Democrats, Taylor E. Dark (The Unions and the Democrats, 1999) calls it “a virtually symbiotic relationship between labor leaders and the Democratic congressional leadership.” Many a bill introduced in Congress has been drafted at the AFL-CIO’s headquarters—notably the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
The Great Society and Vietnam
Although labor’s fears of a reactionary assault on existing social legislation proved groundless during the Eisenhower administration, no new social legislation was enacted. By 1960, another economic recession, with mounting unemployment, was underway and the unions were convinced that a more economically and socially active national administration was needed. Labor played a significant role in the close 1960 presidential race, helping Democrat John F. Kennedy nose out Richard M. Nixon. The unions subsequently enjoyed consultation with the White House and forged close relations with Democrats in Congress.
Labor’s influence burgeoned during Lyndon Johnson’s administration, as a very close personal relationship developed between him and AFL-CIO president Meany. Politically, both men were alike; they knew how to wheel and deal and deliver on promises. Johnson’s “Great Society” program, moreover, encompassed the broad goals of organized labor. As the Vietnam War escalated, however, Johnson became more isolated, losing a good deal of his constituency on the left—but the AFL-CIO remained resolute in its pro-war stand.
A Period of Waning Labor Influence
The Vietnam War destroyed Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, doomed Hubert Humphrey’s election possibilities in 1968, and undermined labor’s political clout. A New Left had arisen within the Democratic Party, which looked upon the old liberals as no better than Republicans. Besides middle class anti-war protesters, entire new constituencies had arisen, first with the black civil rights movement and then with the women’s revolution. Their issues—anti-war, pro-abortion rights, pro-affirmative action—were not labor’s, and so conflict was inevitable. The unions—part and parcel of the old, white-male-dominated system of backroom political bargaining and tradeoffs—did not know how to deal with the demands of the young, the minorities, and the women.
When the rules of the Democratic Party were rewritten in 1972 to provide for open primaries and state convention delegations that would reflect the party’s ethnic and sexual composition, union support was split among various traditional candidates. But the convention nominated the left candidate, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota. Meany fumed that “homosexuals and hippies” had taken over the Democratic Party, and the reformers, in turn, saw the unions as led by working-class white men who were cold warriors, racists, sexists, and homophobes. The AFL-CIO refused to endorse McGovern, who went down to a humiliating defeat by President Nixon.
After Watergate and Nixon, the moderate Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976. But, because labor had again been divided during the primaries (with the AFL-CIO not endorsing anyone), Carter entered the White House not anti-labor, but not indebted to labor either. In any event, Carter lacked the power to really do much that labor wanted.
The best example of this was the fate of the “Labor Reform” Bill. At the behest of the AFL-CIO, the Carter administration proposed legislation that would have enhanced union organizational abilities. Although the bill sailed through the House of Representatives, it was filibustered to death in the Senate in early 1978. This was the last serious effort to amend the NLRA in order to make union organizing easier. The Carter administration, moreover, introduced deregulation to the airline and trucking industries through the Airline Deregulation Act and the Motor Carrier Act, which marked the end of government controls of routes and fares and led to intensified competition, the entrance of nonunion firms, and a decline in union membership and power.
From Demands to Concessions
The 1980s proved even worse for unionism. On the economic front, intensified international and domestic competition found many American companies wanting. In their efforts to restore competitiveness, they had to take drastic actions, many of which proved inimical to unions. Unions were forced to engage in “concessionary bargaining,” that is giving up previous gains in an attempt to preserve jobs in companies and industries facing rough times. Despite concessions, many jobs disappeared as either markets shriveled and plants, generally older unionized ones, were closed or relocated, or new technology was introduced to reduce labor costs, all of which tended to reduce unionized jobs.
With the election of Republican Ronald Reagan (ironically, a former union president) as president in 1980, labor’s political influence continued to plummet. The tone of the new administration’s attitude toward labor was set with Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers for engaging in an illegal walkout. (This led to the destruction of their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization which, again ironically, had broken with the rest of organized labor to back Reagan.) The unions viewed Reagan’s appointments to the NLRB as anti-labor, his supply-side economics as Keynesianism for the super-rich, and his tax cuts and reduced funding of social programs as anti-little guy. In the two Reagan administrations and that of George Bush (whom only the Teamsters supported), there was no dialogue with organized labor, and with union membership in the private sector nosediving, labor seemed to be a spent force on the economic and political scene.
Revitalized Labor Political Action
But significant changes were taking place within the labor movement. While unionism in the private sector was in a free fall, it was expanding in the public sector. Those unions, however, had a very different membership profile from the earlier, strong unions. They had large numbers of minorities and women in their ranks, who were leery of the AFL-CIO’s anti-reform position. With Meany’s retirement in 1979, the AFL-CIO accepted party reform, modified its all-out opposition to affirmative action, and achieved rapprochement with liberal groups.
The new strategy began achieving some limited success, even during the Reagan-Bush years. Unions were most concerned about the closing of unionized plants in the midwest rust belt and, with the Democrats in control of Congress in 1988, a labor-led coalition won the Worker Readjustment and Retraining (WARN) Act, mandating 60 days’ advance notice of plant closings or major layoffs. A similar coalition in 1990 achieved enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring employers to, among other things, provide “reasonable accommodation” so that disabled people could more easily participate in the labor force.
Despite a one-third drop in membership, all in the private sector, labor beefed up its political muscle. Indeed, its weakened position may have encouraged it to devote greater resources to politics, on the theory that, if you can’t get it through bargaining with employers, then get it from the government through legislation. The 1995 election of John Sweeney of the Service Employees as AFL-CIO president spelled an intensification of union concerns with politics, since he had been supported by the more activist unions. He also represented the growing trend to unionization of service workers.
Labor and the Clinton Administration
As the core constituency of the unions changed, so did the electorate. The United States was becoming less blue-collar (and much more “pink-collar”) and more culturally diverse. Bill Clinton, who came from the moderate wing of the party, was not traditional labor’s choice in the 1992 primaries; it was largely the public sector unions that supported him.
Clinton’s election did give labor more access to the White House than it had had since the 1960s, but hardly anything resembling its former strength. There were some labor-friendly appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and Robert Reich became Secretary of Labor. Reich, however, was dropped after Clinton’s first term, as his left-leaning positions were out of step. And, despite more union-friendly decisions by the NLRB, labor’s declining private sector membership did not improve.
Clinton did take some steps that pleased labor. He rescinded two of Bush’s executive orders, one requiring federal contractors to inform employees that they may refuse to pay union dues for political activities and the other barring contractors who entered into project agreements with unions from bidding on federally funded construction contracts. He lifted the ban on the rehiring of air traffic controllers who had struck in 1981, and he denied federal approval to Texas to privatize administration of its welfare program, which would have jeopardized jobs of public employee union members.
Clinton came to office, with the nation only emerging from a recession, largely because of his emphasis on the state of the economy. “It’s the economy, stupid” was his election theme. Labor hoped Clinton’s economic solutions would come from its traditional arsenal—increased government spending, extended unemployment benefits, and the like. Indeed, the new administration quickly put forth a $30-billion economic stimulus package, which the Republicans filibustered to death in the Senate. Voices within the administration, particularly that of Robert Rubin, were never keen on that approach, and as the economy began to pick up without it, Clinton quickly forgot it.
New Constituency, New Focus
The actions that Clinton took that agreed with labor’s point of view also reflected the changing nature of both the electorate and the union membership. Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (1993), which had been vetoed by Bush and had been a priority issue with the public and service sector unions, such as AFSCME and SEIU, which had large female memberships. Labor also was pleased with facilitation of voter registration (the motor-voter law), easing of Hatch Act strictures on federal employee political activities (important to government unions), and the raising of the minimum wage.
Trade policy, however, became a major union issue as organized labor opposed the Clinton-supported North American Free Trade Agreement. While labor got a majority of House Democrats and almost half in the Senate to oppose NAFTA, it was adopted with Republican support. Pro-NAFTA Democrats were threatened with retribution, but in the next election, labor backed off.
The unions did win the next encounter, forcing the president, in 1997, to withdraw his proposal for renewal of “fast-track” trade legislation. University of Virginia labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein ascribes that victory less to union power than to the lack of any popular demand for fast-track authority. Today, Clinton and the AFL-CIO are once again at war over his proposal to extend permanent normal trading rights to China, which the unions fear would endanger the jobs of some of their members.
On labor-management issues, Clinton supported traditional labor concerns and vetoed the Teamwork for Employees and Management (TEAM) Act, which would have removed some of the impediments to employee involvement by permitting management and employees to discuss matters of production, quality, and efficiency. Union lobbying in Congress succeeded in blocking a plan to allow employers to give workers compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay and in preserving the Davis-Bacon Act requiring federal contractors to pay an area’s prevailing wages, which has meant extension of building-trades-union rates to all government construction.
While unions have been able to block labor legislation not to their liking, they have not had notable success with issues they favor. The 1993 proposed Workplace Fairness Act, to prevent the hiring of permanent replacements for economic strikers, died in a Senate filibuster. Clinton’s major industrial relations move, in response to the union demand for a “level playing field,” was the appointment of the Commission on Labor-Management Relations, headed by John Dunlop. The Commission conducted intensive hearings and, in essence, recommended a trade-off—making it easier for unions to organize in exchange for legalizing employee involvement programs. Neither labor nor management was interested and its findings are gathering dust on the shelf. The Republicans taking control of both houses of Congress following the 1994 elections spelled the end to prospects for any change in national labor policy for the rest of Clinton’s term of office.
Labor in the 2000 Campaign
The social and demographic changes that have occurred in the country have altered labor’s constituents—and its issues. Union strength is already greater in the service sector than in manufacturing, and union organizing is focusing more and more on nontraditional members. With the rise in the public sector unions’ membership to 40 percent of the total, their importance in political decision-making has risen. Teachers were the first professionals to organize; today, doctors and other medical professionals are joining the ranks. The recent union strikers at Boeing were not assembly-line workers; they were highly trained engineers. Now university graduate assistants in New York have won the right to organize and those in the California and some other public systems already have done so.
In short, most union members today do not see themselves as belonging to a downtrodden working class, but as part of the suburban middle class. Their issues of concern are not necessarily the ones traditionally championed by organized labor. In fact, polls indicate that roughly half of union members approve their unions’ political positions, one-quarter oppose them, and one quarter is apathetic. The issues of greatest concern to public and private sector unions increasingly differ—e. g., teachers want to prevent the spread of voucher programs and industrial unions seek to curb moves toward freer trade. For the time being, however, they do still tend to support each other’s positions in the name of “solidarity.”
And the unions themselves are not monolithic. Not all national unions are affiliated with the AFL-CIO, and even those that are need not adhere to its political decisions, although, so far, most do. Many individual unions have their own, additional political organizations that supplement AFL-CIO activities. There are about a dozen of these that are effective, including ones connected to the UAW, Machinists, Service Employees, Food, Commercial, Teamsters, State and County workers, and both teacher unions—the AFL-CIO’s AFT and the independent National Education Association.
A Force To Be Reckoned with
Whatever their differences and potential for internal disagreement, however, unions remain powerful players in U.S. electoral politics. They have 16.5 million members and their families to marshal for pre-election political activities and voting, and their treasuries have not declined with the drop in their membership.
By far, and with just a few exceptions (e.g., the 45-percent of union members who voted for Reagan in 1980), this power supports the Democrats. Although the AFL-CIO endorsed 26 Republicans for Congress in 1998, in keeping with its historic position of supporting candidates from either party considered favorable to labor’s interests, it has moved far from a nonpartisan position. In the past half century, in every presidential election except 1972, it has supported the Democratic nominee, and often played a role in his selection.
In many communities, there is a strong interconnection between organized labor and the party—e. g., the UAW in Michigan. And often the turnout of union member families has proved crucial in close contests—e.g., Senate races in Nevada and Wisconsin in 1998.
A large part of unions’ power is financial. The CIO pioneered the Political Action Committee six decades ago, and unions’ PACs are among the strongest in the nation. In recent years, business has also adopted the PAC approach to politics, and now both business and labor solicit contributions to their respective PACs. In 1996 labor was the single largest contributor to Democratic congressional candidates, providing almost half of the money they received from political action committees. Increasing dependence on union money also is due to a drying up of business contributions to Democrats.
Many conservatives are determined to clip labor’s political wings by curbing its ability to raise money. Since few union members take advantage of a 1988 Supreme Court decision, Beck v. Communication Workers of America, that allows them to withhold the portion of their dues that goes to political activity, conservatives want to require unions to receive consent beforehand.
Some states have enacted restrictions requiring unions to obtain annual written authorizations from members to continue payroll deductions for political activities. In Washington State such a restriction drastically cut the political funds of the Washington Education Association. In Michigan it had no effect on the numbers signed up by the Teamsters, but it forced the union to spend time and money to achieve that result. Efforts were undertaken in 1998 to push such ballot initiatives in 21 states, including California. The California campaign, however, backfired, and Proposition 226 was not only defeated, but by activating the unions to oppose it, contributed to a Republican rout in the elections.
George W. Bush is proposing a federal ban on the use of union dues in politics, but some people fear that it could spread to restrictions on business contributions. A telling argument used by the opponents of the California initiative was its one-sidedness—unions would have been forced to get their members’ approval to spend on campaigns but corporations would not have needed stockholder approval. Indeed, the Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC), with members from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, prefers eliminating prohibitions on direct contributions to candidates from corporations and labor unions.
Gore, the House, and the Senate
Be that as it may, labor views the 2000 campaign as an opportunity to flex its muscles and play a decisive role in electing a president to its liking, winning a Democratic majority in the House, and whittling down the Republican edge in the Senate. To prepare for 2000, the AFL-CIO Executive Council early in 1999 approved a $40-million, comprehensive political education and mobilization plan. Its elements include membership mobilization on key issues such as Social Security, Medicare, a minimum wage hike, and the registering of 4 million new voters. The plan also called for encouraging union members to run for political office.
President Clinton put pressure on John Sweeney for an early AFL-CIO endorsement of Gore, and Sweeney, in turn, pressured his executive council into doing so, despite the preference of some unions (UAW, Teamsters) to wait longer in order to wring more policy concessions from Gore. Labor proved effective in the early primaries in getting union member families to the polls and to vote for Gore.
In Iowa, 33 percent of the people who attended the Democratic caucuses were from union households. The primary in New Hampshire, a low union-density state, was an even greater labor success in getting out the vote, with 23 percent of the Democratic voters coming from union households. While Gore scored an overall 52 to 47 percent victory over Bradley in New Hampshire, his margin of victory was three to two in union households, prompting Steven Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO’s political director, to claim that without union members, Bradley would have won. That pattern continued until the multiple primaries of Super Tuesday, March 7, when Gore’s margins of victory over Bradley became so formidable that labor could not claim credit.
Centering on the Issues
Gore’s reliance on labor has led him to adopt some pro-union stances. He has called for modification of federal laws that allow employers either to prevent workers from joining a union or to refuse to bargain in good faith once a union has been selected (basically, the union-sponsored Labor Reform bill of 1978), and has vowed to veto any anti-union legislation that makes its way through Congress. He has endorsed the document, “Principles for a New Employment Relationship,” championed by the Collective Bargaining Forum, a group of leaders from labor and some highly unionized companies, which calls for a resumption of the labor-management relationships that prevailed after World War II. He also has espoused a number of social measures, such as expanding health insurance, that please labor.
Also, because Gore has waffled on supporting Clinton’s push for normal trading status for China, labor hopes that its chance of passage this year will be diminished; Richard Gephardt, Democratic leader in the House, has joined with labor in opposition to Chinese trade normalization. Although Sander Levin of Michigan has promoted a compromise that would allow liberal Democrats in Congress to support Clinton’s proposal, Gephardt has turned a cold shoulder to it and his stand virtually dooms chances of passage.
In the Congressional races, labor will continue its 1998 strategy of supporting some moderate Republicans and grass roots efforts to get out the vote. So far, it has targeted 71 congressional districts and in all but one endorsed Democratic candidates. Given the close division in the House, where a shift of a dozen seats could determine control, labor’s political efforts could prove as decisive as they hope.
In the primaries, both Bush and Gore pandered to their parties’ extremes, the more likely primary voters—Gore to labor, Bush to the religious right. Now, however, they are both moving toward the center to attract more moderate voters. Indeed, with both parties committed to preserving Social Security and a balanced budget, the prospects are dim for either candidate who wins to achieve his enunciated goals—in Bush’s case a major tax cut, and in Gore’s, much more social spending. And, while the likely Reform Party candidate, Patrick Buchanan, will unfurl his banner against trade and all things foreign, he is highly unlikely to draw a significant vote.
There has been a sea change during the last century, as labor has moved from the old AFL’s reliance on collective bargaining to win gains for workers to today’s AFL-CIO’s use of the political process to achieve them. Some militants, like Anthony Mazzocchi, who had been a vice-president of the old Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers, call for independent political action, but that is not likely to happen, since labor is much too weak to be able to launch a new party with any hopes of even modest success.
Other union people want to create within the Democratic Party a labor-left equivalent of the religious right within the Republican Party, which could force the party and its candidates to adopt given positions or face retribution on Election Day. Tony Mazzocchi, although seeking an eventual labor party, is willing to settle for such an interim arrangement to build an anti-corporate coalition within the Democratic Party to fight for a change in the party’s direction. This is as much a pipe dream as independent political action, since such a move on the part of labor would be resisted by the party majority, both on ideological grounds and practical ones, recognizing that too tight a labor embrace could become a kiss of death for the Democrats.
Integral Parts of the System
A number of trade union leaders, moreover, have developed stakes in the national or state and local Democratic parties, which they are not eager to surrender. Labor is one of the constituents in the combinations the Democrats create to achieve majority status. Unions have 35 of the 320 members of the Democratic National Committee and a higher proportion of delegates to national conventions, many from the public sector unions.
Finally, American labor is not ideological and not seeking any major change in the nation’s orientation, so the existing party setup offers the best vehicle for the attainment of its modest political goals. Basically, labor seeks to curb nonunion competition—domestically, by wage laws (e.g. FLSA, Davis-Bacon) that set legal minimums and by limitations on the supply of labor through apprenticeship regulation and curbs on immigration, and internationally, through curbing trade expansion and injecting labor standards into trade agreements that are reached. It favors some income redistribution through the progressive tax system and transfer programs such as Social Security. Labor also desires laws fostering union organization and collective bargaining, but these continue to prove elusive.
Alliances on Issues
Unable to achieve these goals by itself, labor is forming alliances with others on specific issues. In 1998, the unions left it to an advocacy group, the Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, to conduct the Hyundai case charging Mexico with violating the NAFTA agreement by not enforcing its own safety and labor laws. Indeed, the AFL-CIO has been able to win support from others for its antiglobalization outlook by masking its old protectionism as concerns with the rights of workers and the environment in other countries.
Recently, a labor-environmentalist (“Sweeney-Greeny”) coalition protested “globalization” at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle and labor was one of the voices at the Washington, D.C. demonstrations against the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Pat Buchanan was a speaker there and pledged that, if elected, he would replace Charlene Barshofsky as U.S. trade negotiator with James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters Union.
A coalition of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and religious and academic groups has prompted some large apparel firms, facing protests and bad publicity about low wages in foreign plants, to lift standards and monitor the use of child labor. Local coalitions, with minority and religious groups, have forced cities across the country, from Boston to San Jose, to adopt “living wage” laws, whereby public contractors must pay wages far above the federal minimum.
Alliances may lead to social legislation favored by unions, but labor has not been able to forge a coalition on issues primarily of interest to it, such as union organizing. For half a century, labor has been on the defensive, warding off legislation that would further restrict union activities and it has lost every battle to widen its powers. The longer-run effectiveness of labor political action is even more problematic. Labor is only one of many forces in American society and the Democratic Party, and there are issues, such as trade and the degree of governmental activism, that divide it from others.
No Unified Agenda
There are increasing differences within labor; for example, the agendas of civil servants and teachers are not necessarily those of the industrial unions. Unions, moreover, do not have much influence with the general public today. Reduced membership means, first, that there are fewer people to influence and activate and, second, it is a reflection of Americans’ lack of interest in unionism as a means to improve their work lives. Unlike the 1930s, people do not see unionism as a cause, but simply as another interest group. Thus, labor endorsement of an issue or candidate does not translate into an outpouring of support, unless people are for the issue or candidate for other reasons.
Labor’s traditional socioeconomic agenda has many fewer adherents today. People do want to preserve existing governmental social programs such as Social Security, support public education, and protect patients in health maintenance organizations—but they no longer believe that government can solve all social problems, and there is more stress on smaller government and on market solutions to problems in preference to public ones. In fact, many of labor’s cherished goals—high, uninterrupted economic growth, full employment, absolute and relative improvement in the conditions of women and minorities— have been achieved during the 1990s through a balanced budget, welfare reform, and trade expansion, not through labor proposals for laxer fiscal policy and wider entitlement programs.
We conclude, therefore, that labor will continue to be politically active but that its influence on broad economic/social policy will gradually diminish and its ability to accomplish any of its goals will depend upon support from other interest groups. Nevertheless, for the near future, labor will be able to wield influence, since many candidates for office will cozy up to it in the belief that there is an absolute need for them to have union support. As we have shown, the unions have a lot of money to dispense to candidates and that keeps many Democrats in line, particularly since funds from the business community have become scarcer. Labor will continue to be most effective in the northern, eastern, and Pacific states, which still have a majority of the electoral votes for president and can overcome the Republican’s heavy advantage in the southern and mountain states.
Since Al Gore believes he needs labor’s support, if he is elected, he can be expected to bow to union positions much more than Bill Clinton has. Furthermore, as long as the Republicans continue to cede the middle ground in American politics to the Democrats, there is little prospect of their becoming the majority party. Labor recognizes this and hitches its star ever closer to the Democratic Party.
Thus, there is ample room at the present time for labor to exert influence on socioeconomic issues beyond what is justified by the number of Americans who follow its advice. On matters of direct concern to unions, organizing and collective bargaining, however, there is little prospect of labor success on the legislative front. For the long run, unless unions can reverse their decline in membership by appealing to the interests and issues of today’s very different workforce, their political importance will decline.