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Breaking Away

Unions That Split From the AFL-CIO Are Now Wooing Republicans

Even as they scramble to address a host of issues related to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the labor unions that split this summer from the AFL-CIO to form their own coalition are actively courting Republicans.

In addition to setting up meetings with Republican leaders, top officials of the breakaway unions are discussing how to work with the Republican Labor Caucus, the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, and Republican campaign committees.

“We need a majority to move our agenda, and to the extent Republicans are willing to work with us, we’ll support those people,” said Mike Mathis, political director for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The breakaway unions, called the Change to Win Coalition, had been ready to reintroduce themselves to both parties last week in meetings with the House leadership. But a scheduling foul-up forced the group to cancel the get-together with Republicans, and union officials now say they are working to reschedule it.

Meanwhile, in a brief meeting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic Steering Committee co-chairman George Miller (Calif.), Change to Win leaders assured the Democratic leadership that they would support them where appropriate. But at the same time, they said that “we’re not going to turn our backs on Republicans — or independents for that matter — who support our growth agenda,” Mathis said.

Mathis, who has helped direct the coalition’s outreach efforts, said Pelosi and Miller emphasized that their party presents labor the best chance to move its agenda.

The meeting with top Democrats “wasn’t contentious in any way,” he said. “But we feel strongly there are Republicans out there we want to work with, and we won’t pledge our undying loyalty to the Democrats.”

A Democratic aide said the prospect of losing support from some key unions is troubling.

“We’re concerned about that,” the aide said. “But they understand we’re supportive of their goals and efforts. The Republicans have never done anything for labor — they never have and they never will.”

Tension over defining the best political strategy to revive the long-declining labor movement was the factor that cleaved the dissident unions from the AFL-CIO this summer. The dissident group — made up of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Service Employees International Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers International Union, UNITE HERE, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and United Farm Workers — argued the federation was too focused on supporting Democrats.

Now, leaders of the breakaway unions are making new overtures to Republicans. Last weekend, Teamsters officials for the first time attended an event by the Republican Main Street Partnership, a retreat for Members’ chiefs of staff on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Teamsters will join the group again this weekend when they convene in Chicago.

“We don’t expect them to support Republicans at every turn,” said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership. “But it’s nice to be able to talk, and for our Members of Congress to be able to listen to them and get their perspective as well.”

After Hurricane Katrina, though, Congressional Republicans are off to a less-than-auspicious start finding common legislative ground with labor interests. Late last week, at the urging of GOP lawmakers, President Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, a Depression-era rule that guarantees wage protections for federal employees, in the rebuilding of coastal areas.

The AFL-CIO issued a sharp rebuke of the move, with federation President John Sweeney saying it had the potential to make the event a “double tragedy.”

“Taking advantage of a national tragedy to get rid of a protection for workers the corporate backers of the White House have long wanted to remove is nothing less than profiteering,” Sweeney said.

Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf said the episode shows why the Democrats should not feel threatened by appeals from dissident unions to Republicans.

“The reality is 90 percent of the Republican caucus and 100 percent of their leadership are never going to support unions on their issues,” he said.

A source close to the AFL-CIO added, “Color me highly skeptical, because Republicans ain’t on our side. We don’t have a warm and fuzzy relationship with [Speaker] Denny Hastert [R-Ill.] and [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [R-Texas], so I’ll be interested to see what this group can get out of them.”

Resnick said her group does see issues of agreement on the horizon, in health care, education and stem-cell research.

And Mathis, who has helped foster the Republican Labor Caucus, said his new federation would like to work with the Republican campaign committees to get to know candidates and encourage them to join the caucus. The National Republican Congressional Committee is open to discussing that, spokesman Ed Patru said.

The AFL-CIO, for its part, is engaged in a similar effort to maintain dialogue with Members from both parties, according to Chuck Loveless, director of legislation for the government-employee union AFSCME, a federation member.

“What they’re doing is something we’ve been doing for a considerable amount of time,” he said.

Victor Kamber, a veteran consultant to labor unions, agreed that labor outreach to Republicans is not a new concept.

“It really goes to the philosophy that labor has always followed: Support our friends, and defeat our enemies,” he said.

The Change to Win Coalition will hold a founding convention Sept. 27 in St. Louis, to adopt a constitution and agree on a permanent name for the group.

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