"Union leaders this week said the election push was a way the
new leadership could quickly demonstrate results for both the
public and the AFL-CIO's member unions."
-- The Washington Post, January 25, 19961
"The Oregon race provides a vital first chapter in a new
textbook on politics we're going to write this year, as we build
the core of a powerful new grassroots movement."
-- AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, January 31, 19962
After decades of declining political influence, labor unions
have pledged to multiply their election efforts this year with a
$35 million war chest. The first real test of organized labor's new
activism -- Oregon's special election for a United States Senate
seat -- resulted in a narrow victory for the candidate heavily
backed by big labor. Similar efforts can be expected in numerous
House and Senate races this fall.
When AFL-CIO President John Sweeney swept into leadership of the
nation's largest labor federation last fall, he did so on an agenda
of action, pledging more active organization drives to help
increase the union rolls in America and promising vocal political
campaigns to promote the union's movement's liberal agenda. Every
indication was that the AFL-CIO would be a major force in 1996.
Shortly after Sweeney's election, voters went to the polls in a
few political contests around the country. These November 1995
contests did yet not have the full Sweeney imprint (he had been in
office only for a few weeks), but organized labor nonetheless
managed to demonstrate a significant presence in several states. In
fact, after the elections, Sweeney attempted to take credit for the
supposed public turn to the left he claimed had occurred.
Earlier this year, the AFL-CIO had its first test for 1996. In
the special election to fill the seat of former Oregon Republican
Senator Bob Packwood, big labor lined its horses up behind
Democratic Congressman Ron Wyden. With substantial backing from
organized labor, Wyden managed to beat Republican Gordon Smith
narrowly in a mail-in election.
As this pivotal election year proceeds, the AFL-CIO and other
labor organizations will continue to invest heavily in campaign
activity. Unfortunately, much of this politicking will be funded
through mandatory worker dues, and much is unreported and
unregulated by federal election laws. Direct PAC donations and
independent expenditure campaigns on behalf of specific candidates
represent only a portion of organized labor's political activities.
It behooves Members of Congress to pay careful attention to these
activities. Hard- working union members should not be compelled to
surrender their own pay, earned by their own sweat and toil, to
finance political activity to which they may well object.
THE PRELUDE: KENTUCKY AND MISSISSIPPI
The AFL-CIO's claim to victory in 1995 lies in the Kentucky
governor's race between Paul Patton (D) and Larry Forgy (R). The
national federation's propaganda organ, the AFL-CIO News,
bragged that "even Forgy, in a call to the Louisville
Courier-Journal, conceded that labor had made the difference, not
only in heavily unionized counties but in helping turn out the
African-American vote through the A. Phillip Randolph
Institute."3 (The A. Phillip Randolph
Institute is an arm of the AFL-CIO dedicated to reaching out to
According to the News, 83,000 phone calls and 158,000
pieces of mail led labor's efforts. The same report went on to
disclose that 7 federation employees joined 9 activists from other
labor unions to put a significant political operation in place on
the ground in Kentucky, and that "two members of the Electrical
Workers and CWA [Communication Workers of America] also were
working with the [A. Phillip Randolph Institute]."
In the end, Patton defeated Forgy by a slim 51-49 margin.
The story in Mississippi was similar, except for the outcome.
Incumbent Republican Governor Kirk Fordice was pitted against
Democrat Dick Molpus. The AFL-CIO and other labor groups committed
3 full-time staff and 10 part-time workers to the race. The
AFL-CIO News reports that the unions dropped 44,000 pieces
of mail and placed 20,000 phone calls in an effort to promote
Molpus. While organized labor's contribution may have helped narrow
what appeared to be a blowout, the end result was that Fordice won
with 55 percent of the vote.
THE OPENING SALVO: OREGON '96
The first meaningful test of organized labor's muscle in the new
year has occurred over the past few weeks in Oregon, where voters
were inundated with aggressive tactics by big labor to help
influence the outcome of the special election. According to AFL-CIO
documents and press reports, 37 union activists (12 from the
AFL-CIO alone) worked full-time to elect a Democratic
Senator4 --"an unusually large number
of political operatives" from unions, according to The
Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's political director, bragged that
"We're mailing endorsement pieces to 75,000 union members and
persuasion pieces to an estimated 40,000." The AFL-CIO newsletter
noted that "another 100,000 fliers comparing the candidates'
records are being produced, and phone banks have been set up across
the state." Shortly after the election was complete, AFL-CIO
President Sweeney announced that the union had made more than
230,000 phone calls and sent over 350,000 pieces of mail.
The AFL-CIO did not act alone, however. By joining forces with
at least 11 individual unions, it was able to mount a considerable
presence in this one targeted race. Among the other participants
were the American Federation of Teachers, American Federation of
Government Employees, National Association of Letter Carriers, and
International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The considerable firepower
mustered by these organizations resulted in more than $183,000 in
political action committee donations to the Democratic candidate.
Not one penny of union money went to Republican Gordon Smith.
Of course, impact is not measured in direct PAC spending alone.
Phone banks, direct mail, paid advertising, and grassroots
organizing are all significant activities that labor used in Oregon
and can be expected to use throughout this year to promote favored
political candidates. Many of these activities can be funded out of
forced dues. In Oregon, these efforts were worth hundreds of
thousands of dollars more than direct, reported expenditures.
Union tactics played a significant role in the Oregon election.
In fact, organized labor's activities themselves came under
scrutiny by the media and the voters. The Teamsters were heavily
criticized for an ad blaming the death of a teenage worker on the
Republican candidate's business. Even the beneficiary of the
Teamsters efforts, Ron Wyden, was forced to issue a public
statement disavowing the ad and encouraging the union to pull
Union politics are nothing new. There is no question that
organized labor has a right to participate in the electoral
process. Unfortunately, in many states like Oregon, unions rely on
coerced funding -- in the form of mandatory union dues -- to
finance many of their political activities. Therefore, every
hard-working union member in Oregon supported the candidacy of Ron
Wyden with his sweat and toil -- even if he cast his vote against
THE ROAD AHEAD: ELECTION '96
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney decided that his new leadership
team must make its mark quickly. They have decided that their goal
of organizing more than a million workers is too ambitious to be
completed in the near term, and that they therefore should devote
much of their resources to political action for a quick score.
The Plan. In keeping with that decision, the labor federation
recently announced its intent to spend $35 million on election
activities this year --as much as 7 times the normal budget and
nearly two-thirds of the cost of a presidential general election
campaign. This allocation will support:
- Targeting 75 House districts, with 1-4 full-time staff in
- Creating a base of at least 100 activists (volunteers and paid)
in every congressional district;
- Hiring state field directors in 36-40 states;
- Placing 2,500 workers in the field for the final
October/November get-out-the-vote efforts;
- Reassigning 12-15 organizers and adding them to the 16-member
political field staff, for a total of 31 traveling political
- Financing a "massive media fund" to deliver the union's
political messages. 6
Rosenthal, even before the election results were known, indicated
what labor's post-election response would be. He told the
that "The election in Oregon stands by
itself" but that "At the same time, it's a national election, and
we hope it will be similar to Harris Wofford's victory in 1991, and
could well set the tone for 1996."7
Warming up for November. The 1996 campaign is already underway
in places other than Oregon. Some 400 unionists, under the banner
of the AFL- CIO's Stand Up campaign, protested outside a recent
gathering of freshman Republicans in Baltimore, Maryland. While the
protesters condemned all of the freshmen, a special target was
Representative Bob Ehrlich (R-MD), who represents a nearby
congressional district. Their signs carried messages urging voters
to make Ehrlich a one-term Congressman. Similar treatment can be
expected by 74 other House members who have been placed on the
AFL-CIO's national hit list.
The AFL-CIO's renewed focus on politics is clearly demonstrated
by the fact that the organization's "Union Summer" campaign, which
will use 1,000 or more college students and entry-level workers to
help organize unions in non-union workplaces, will be diverted to
politics in the fall. Originally, it appeared that this organizing
campaign would be the crown jewel for the new leadership, but they
have been forced to shift their attention to a playing field on
which they believe they can win: the 1996 elections.
AFL-CIO Leadership "Impressed" with Union-Led Turmoil in France.
Unfortunately, it appears that Sweeney and his new team at the
AFL-CIO envision a much more aggressive and confrontational plan
than previous union leaders have pursued. In a speech late last
year before the Association for a Better New York, Sweeney provided
the following insight into his thinking:
I was in Europe last week, traveling with President
Clinton, and I couldn't help but be impressed with what is going on
in France. In this country, when we're faced with cuts in vital
services that benefit workers and the poor, we shut down a few
parts of the government. In France, the workers shut down the
country -- even though only 8 percent of the work force is
While Sweeney expressed his hope that such a situation would not
be necessary in the United States, even suggesting the idea is
shameful. The chaos and violence of the national shutdown caused by
French unions would not likely be admired by many Americans but
appears to be a possible harbinger of the AFL-CIO's intentions.
Compelling Union Workers to Pay for Politics. The new AFL-CIO
leadership has implicitly acknowledged their reliance on forced
union membership and compulsory dues to promote their agenda. One
of the resolutions proposed by the Sweeney slate at last year's
The November 1994 elections capped a decades-long
decline in labor's political influence, a trend closely connected
to the decline in union density. This erosion also reflects labor's
regional weaknesses, the seeds of which were planted decades ago by
our failure to make adequate in-roads in right-to-work
By admitting a link between political weakness and voluntary
fundraising, Sweeney's leadership is conceding that organized
labor's strength lies where workers are compelled to pay union dues
as a condition of employment.
COERCED AND HIDDEN FUNDING
Many of the AFL-CIO's political activities, like those of the
federation's member unions, are financed not through voluntary PAC
contributions by members, but by forced dues. Those activities that
are issue-oriented (like television ads against Medicare reform,
for example) often are paid for with these coerced dollars.
As Members of Congress consider campaign finance reform
legislation, they should ask whether it is fair to force every
union member to pay for the ideological warfare of union officials.
Corporations may not provide this sort of direct candidate support,
and neither should their labor counterparts.
Campaign finance reform should not be entered into lightly.
Meaningful reform must level the playing field and ensure that only
voluntary contributions are used for politics. As the election
season heats up, Members of Congress should note the activities of
labor unions and remember where the money comes from.
The AFL-CIO has indicated clearly that aggressive political
activities by labor unions --paid for on the backs of the union
rank and file -- will continue throughout this high-stakes election
year. Organized labor's renewed political activism promises to be a
major factor in the 1996 elections. While unions should be as free
as other organizations to pursue their political goals, the
coercive nature of union funding, and the regulatory advantages
unions enjoy, are unjust and unfair.
- Frank Swoboda, "AFL-CIO to Target 75
House Districts," The Washington Post, January 25, 1996, p.
- "Democrat Wyden Wins Packwood's Seat in
Senate in Mail-Ballot Election," BNA Daily Labor Report,
February 1, 1996, p. A11.
- Larry Byrne, "Labor Helps Turn Political
Tide," AFL-CIO News, November 17, 1995, p. 1.
- Frank Swoboda, "Labor Wants Political
Focus on Wages; AFL-CIO to Mount Campaign to Keep Issue at Center
of '96 Elections," The Washington Post, December 16, 1995,
- Byrne, "Labor Helps Turn Political
Tide," op. cit.
- "Sweeney Announces Major Changes at
AFL-CIO," BNA Daily Labor Report, January 25, 1996, p.
- Thomas B. Edsall, "Candidate's Backers
Hope to Make Oregon a Liberal Proving Ground," The Washington
Post, January 27, 1996, p. A3.
- Sweeney's speech was made on December 6,
- Text of resolution on "A New Voice for
Workers in Politics," October 25, 1995.