WASHINGTON – With Congress set to reconvene Tuesday, Randy Johnson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce doesn’t disguise his worries about the combination of a determined labor movement and a potentially receptive audience on Capitol Hill.
“We’re in a strange situation,” says Johnson, the Chamber’s vice president for labor policy. “The influence of unions on Capitol Hill is inverse to their influence in the general population.”
After the first Labor Day in a dozen years with Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, labor will push an ambitious legislative agenda for the fall session.
It aims to change U.S. trade policy and to thwart President George W. Bush’s trade deals with Colombia and South Korea, claiming that a lack of worker rights overseas is dragging American workers down to the level of those in poorer countries. Unions also oppose the renewal of presidential fast-track authority on trade pacts.
Organized labor will support efforts to change corporate bankruptcy procedures to make it harder for failing companies to walk away from obligations to workers over pensions, retiree health care and wages. And it will fight to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program and for funding increases for education.
Backers of the Employee Free Choice Act will try to gain more Senate support for the measure, which will make it easier for workers to form a union. The bill is bitterly opposed by employers because it would allow a union to be set up without a secret ballot by workers. It stalled earlier this year in the Senate after passing the House.
Last week, unions announced support for a new health care program by 2009 covering all Americans, but have yet to endorse a specific approach.
Mike Diegel, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, an advocate for small businesses, agrees that labor is pushing “an aggressive agenda on the Hill.”
Bill Samuel, AFL-CIO legislative director, makes no apologies for labor’s tough stance.
“We had a lot of ground to make up for after years of neglect by the Congress,” he said. Congressional action won’t be the end of the story, Samuel says, noting that President George W. Bush has threatened vetoes in several areas.
“So I think there’s going to be a struggle that will take us through most of the fall session,” Samuel said.
Public antipathy over generous packages for executives at failing companies as workers find themselves losing promised pensions, health care packages and wages has fueled support for change, Samuel says.
Johnson counters that labor is working Congress hard because it can’t make inroads among workers and the public. But he acknowledges that even with labor’s declining share of the work force, its membership of more than 15 million gives it clout.
Bob Soutier, president of the 150,000-member St. Louis Labor Council, says spending more federal money on education is a priority.
“That’s certainly an issue here in St. Louis. We have teachers who have to take money out of their own pockets to buy books and supplies for their students,” Soutier said.
Brad Jones, director in Missouri for the National Federation of Independent Business, said, “I think here in the state you’ve certainly seen the labor movement flex its muscle a little bit, especially with the minimum wage,” a successful referendum item on last November’s ballot.
Organized labor remains a force in St. Louis, with nearly double labor’s national union share of the work force. That stems from a strong local union tradition, respected union leadership, a broad industrial and service-sector economy, and generally good relations between labor and management.
Those good relations flow partly from the PRIDE organization, formed 35 years ago as the nation’s first voluntary construction labor-management group. It works to improve efficiency, quality and safety in St. Louis’ construction industry. Jim LaMantia, executive director of PRIDE, says officials from San Francisco, Boston, Milwaukee and Las Vegas have recently contacted him to learn more about labor-management cooperation in St. Louis.
Nationally, labor’s share of the work force is 12 percent; a half-century ago it stood at 35 percent.
Despite that drop, labor has retained a measure of political clout, even with the split that occurred in St. Louis two years ago when seven AFL-CIO unions left to form the Change to Win federation. In recent national elections, one-quarter of the votes have come from union households – a showing that contributed to the Democratic congressional win in November.
Organized labor is poised to make a major push in next year’s elections, hoping to help a Democrat win the White House. Among other things, that would reduce the margin needed to make law of such key bills as the Employee Free Choice Act, which in turn could boost labor’s membership.
The AFL-CIO is holding off on a presidential endorsement, but Wednesday’s backing of Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd by the International Association of Fire Fighters has the potential to alter the dynamics of the Democratic nominating contest.
Despite being a mid-sized union with little national political experience, in 2004 the firefighters union played a key role in rescuing the faltering primary campaign of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. Finely honed strategy combined with the local respect enjoyed by firefighters catapulted Kerry to an upset win in Iowa and a second victory in New Hampshire.
In endorsing Dodd, says Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Firefighters, “We’ve ignored the polls, the campaign donations, the political pundits. Instead, he said, the union looked at experience and leadership.
Despite current GOP problems, next year’s general election is likely to be extremely close, Schaitberger says, and he argues that Dodd’s record on national security, his status as his party’s only candidate to have worn a military uniform and his record on workers’ issues would appeal to Middle America. It was the union’s earliest endorsement ever.