AFL-CIO Troubles Could Negatively Impact Democrats

The beleaguered Democratic Party has always had the financial support of big labor to count on. But now a bitter split within the ranks of labor could spell further trouble for the Democrats in the next mid-term congressional elections.

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This week's big split in organized labor could be just one more headache for Democrats. The labor movement is the party's most reliable organizing force. But with two of the biggest unions leaving the AFL-CIO, it may be harder to coordinate next year's campaign. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke at the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago earlier this week. Her address came just before the Service Employees and the Teamsters said they were quitting the labor federation. Standing in the cavernous convention hall on Navy Pier, Pelosi reminded the crowd how important a united labor movement is to the Democratic Party.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): As you meet here today to work out the future of the AFL-CIO, Republicans in Washington are carrying out an assault on your right to organize. That's why it's so vital that whatever decisions are made this week, labor must emerge from this convention stronger and ready to confront any challenge.

LANGFITT: In fact, labor will end this week more divided than it's been in decades. The Service Employees and the Teamsters are part of a dissident group that says it wants to spend more money on organizing new workers to halt labor's slide. And the two unions say they had to quit the AFL-CIO to do so. Andy Stern leads the Service Employees. At a news conference, he said the dissidents still want to cooperate with the labor federation.

Mr. ANDY STERN (Service Employees): We want to work together with them. We want to work together on politics. We want to work together in communities. We extended our hand, and they have to decide whether they want to be successful or vindictive, and I believe they want to be successful.

LANGFITT: But many in the AFL-CIO are angry with Stern for pulling out, especially on the opening day of the convention, and that animosity could spill over into political campaigns. Earlier this year, some dissident unions told the AFL-CIO it had to ask for permission before using their membership lists for political organizing. As the split loomed last week, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka said the impact on political campaigns was clear.

Mr. RICHARD TRUMKA (AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer): It would make them far more difficult, if not impossible. It would weaken our campaigns, there's no question about that. And to pretend that it wouldn't is just defying reality.

LANGFITT: To make matters worse, some dissident unions are questioning labor's close ties to Democrats. They see the party as taking labor for granted and unions should try to forge some alliances with Republicans. Not everyone in the labor movement is worried about the split. One person who's worked on campaigns says relationships are strong at the grassroots. Local organizers may continue to work together and try to ignore the rift at the top.

Also most campaign spending comes from individual unions, not the AFL-CIO, and those unions are likely to keep supporting Democrats at the top of the ticket, but the AFL-CIO may not be able to coordinate the way it used to. Richard Hurd is a professor of labor studies at Cornell. Outside the convention, he talked about the challenge the new coalition presents to Democrats.

Professor RICHARD HURD (Cornell): Now they have to work with one more group, and it's a group that has indicated a little bit more skepticism about working directly with the Democratic Party and more willingness to be bipartisan or pragmatic or make decisions on a case-by-case basis. So it will be a bit more challenging and it may result in these particular unions being less committed to the Democratic Party agenda.

LANGFITT: People credit AFL-CIO president John Sweeney with building a strong political operation. The AFL-CIO says it's turning out a higher percentage of labor households to vote, but Democrats continue to lose presidential and congressional races. Some say labor needs to change its message from one closely tied to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party to one with broader appeal. Peter Morici is an economist at the University of Maryland who follows the labor movement.

Mr. PETER MORICI (University of Maryland): John Sweeney has been selling a package that Americans have been rejecting for the last 10 years. He came in with a promise to reinvigorate the labor movement, and what he offered was a package based on class warfare, envy and confrontation.

LANGFITT: How much impact this week's split has on political campaigns is hard to predict, but the Democratic Party should know soon. Midterm elections are in 15 months.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Chicago.

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