Labor Rift Could Alter Political Strategies

The news of a major split within the ranks of the AFL-CIO could have significant impact beyond the labor movement itself. Two large unions, the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, have left the labor federation to form a new entity more focused on organizing and less on political activity.

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Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt Democrats have been helped by organized labor. Contributions have come in cash and in the form of volunteer campaign workers, and AFL-CIO has been in the lead, organizing much of the effort. This week two of the most important unions in the AFL-CIO pulled out. As NPR's Don Gonyea reports, that's raising big questions about the clout of big labor in future elections.

DON GONYEA reporting:

You see it every campaign season: A Democratic candidate for Congress or governor or mayor or the state legislature or for president standing on a stage at a union hall seeking the votes of working people. Last summer, Senator John Kerry was making the pitch in New Jersey.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Let me just ask you: Have your health insurance premiums gone up in the last few years?

Crowd: (In unison) Yeah.

Sen. KERRY: Anybody here hasn't lost wages at the bargaining table that you just transfer to the health-care companies? Have your co-payments gone up?

Crowd: (In unison) Yeah.

Sen. KERRY: Have your deductibles gone up?

Crowd: (In unison): Yeah.

GONYEA: Kerry did win roughly two-thirds of the votes in labor households, according to exit polls, even as he lost the election. It's fair to say that labor support, including a well-organized get-out-the-vote effort in swing states with big industrial cities, helped make the election as close as it was in 2004 and in 2000 as well. Still, overall, labor membership is on a decline, a trend that has continued through the decade that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has headed the federation. The dissident unions cite this as their reason for breaking away. Of course, declining numbers mean shrinking political clout as well. The fear among Democrats now is that a labor movement caught up in its own internal conflict will make things even worse. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says much is at stake because of the role labor plays in Democratic campaigns.

Mr. LARRY SABATO (University of Virginia, Political Scientist): This has a direct impact on the Democratic Party because the vast majority of money, manpower and materiel that the union movement supplies in politics goes directly to the Democratic candidates for Congress and for president.

GONYEA: Sabato notes that in the long run the moves taken this week by the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union could be a good thing for the movement, but right now it's hard to know.

Mr. SABATO: Oddly enough, the Republicans have done nothing to encourage this split, but their objectives may have been achieved by the split. It's not a guaranteed advantage for Republicans, but I always look around and see who's elated and who's depressed, and this morning because of the union split Democrats were depressed and Republicans are elated.

GONYEA: David Axelrod is a longtime Democratic campaign consultant based in Chicago. He says the 2006 midterm elections, now just 15 months away, will be the first test. He says the newly divided union movement will have to coordinate behind candidates they can agree on.

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Democratic Consultant): I still believe that most labor households will vote Democratic. The question is: Will they come out in the numbers they did? Will we be pounding on the same doors instead of expanding our universe because the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing? You know, these are issues that have to be worked through, and until they are I think there's going to be a great deal of anxiety among Democrats.

GONYEA: As for money, Axelrod says Republicans have no trouble raising cash and that labor has been an important offset source for Democrats. So any dip in dollars, he says, will hurt, even if it's only temporary. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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