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Talkin’ Union Blues

Rival Federations Say California Special Will Test Ability to Cooperate

With Democrats unsure of how the rifts within organized labor will impact the 2006 elections and beyond, union officials are looking to their campaign against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) initiatives in California’s Nov. 8 special election to serve as a model for future cooperation.

As the Service Employees International Union and other unions that bolted the AFL-CIO meet this week in St. Louis to codify the rules governing the new Change To Win coalition, officials on both sides of the labor divide are sinking money and manpower into California in an effort to defeat at least two of Schwarzenegger’s ballot initiatives.

These issues “are bigger than California,” said SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger. “The internationals are putting money into this.”

The question is, can the AFL-CIO and Change To Win umbrella groups coordinate their campaigns, and if so, will the experiment prove a successful model for working together in 2006 and 2008?

“What happens in California will be really telling,” one former union official said, echoing the sentiments of others interviewed for this story. “I’m hopeful by the next presidential race there’s a meeting of the minds to work things out.”

In a telephone interview from Los Angeles late last week, Burger said defeating two Schwarzenegger voter initiatives in particular are an immediate priority of several Washington, D.C.-based international unions.

Labor’s targets in California’s Nov. 8 contest include Proposition 75, to prohibit public-employee unions from spending dues on political activity without the explicit written permission — provided annually — of their members; and Proposition 76, to limit government spending on state programs.

Burger said she would like California’s Change To Win affiliates to work in tandem with their AFL-CIO counterparts in their campaign against Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures.

The AFL-CIO also is looking to California as a test case for future cooperation among coalitions, and would like to see a plan worked out. But AFL-CIO officials sound less optimistic than those at Change To Win that the development of a coordinated strategy is imminent.

“It’s too early to predict what kinds of coordination there will be,” said Mike Podhorzer, deputy director of the AFL-CIO’s political department.

The international arm of the SEIU is slated to spend more than $2 million combatting Schwarzenegger’s voter initiatives. That is in addition to whatever the union’s California affiliates end up spending.

Podhorzer said the AFL-CIO also is likely to bolster its California affiliates’ efforts financially, but was unable to provide an estimated amount.

Earlier this year, SEIU and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters lead a revolt of unions unhappy with the AFL-CIO’s leadership.

Under the direction of SEIU President Andrew Stern and his Teamsters counterpart, James Hoffa, those unions and others left the AFL-CIO and formed a second umbrella group — Change To Win — that will make its own decisions on get-out-the-vote strategy, candidate support and other political activities.

Democrats are taking a wait-and-see approach on whether having two union coalitions, rather than one, will damage labor’s political effectiveness.

“We just don’t know what the effects are going to be yet,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Luis Miranda said. “Clearly, it’s a difficult time in the labor movement, and we know we’re stronger when we’re united. But it’s too early to tell.”

Republicans are taking a similar approach, but don’t appear optimistic that they will benefit from the labor split.

Although officials with Change To Win unions have pledged to be more open to supporting Republicans, GOP phones have yet to start ringing any more than they used to.

“If union leaders look and say, ‘What are in the interests of our workers as workers, as opposed to what are in the interests of the [labor] bosses as Democrats,’ then we would have an opportunity to work together,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman in an interview.

Unions for the past several election cycles have functioned as the de facto ground-game operation of the Democratic Party, and it doesn’t look like that is going to change.

If anything, the Change To Win unions would like to step up their get-out-the-vote efforts, encouraging more members to take leaves of absences from their jobs to knock on doors, man phone banks and organize fellow workers.

And since the unions in Change To Win aren’t any more likely to support Republican policies than they were when they were part of the AFL-CIO, Democratic candidates still are likely to receive the lion’s share of labor’s support.

“I’m open to the notion that we have to wait and see” what the political results of the split will be, said Democratic strategist and ground-game specialist Tom Lindenfeld. “But my real belief is that competition inspires people to do more, try harder, and ultimately be more effective. I believe the potential impact of the labor movement is greater than what it was.”

One area where union political operations could suffer involves economies of scale. Where before all get-out-the-vote and campaign operations were coordinated under one roof, now they will be handled under two, opening the door to duplication and an extra — some say unnecessary — expenditure of resources.

From House races to Senate races to a presidential campaign, some worry that activists from both coalitions could find themselves bumping into each other while knocking on doors on the same street.

That’s why California is seen as a laboratory in advance of next year. If the local unions from each coalition are able to effectively communicate and coordinate their efforts to defeat Schwarzenegger’s initiatives, a model for combining forces in 2006 and 2008 might be born.

If not, it’s back to the drawing board.

“We’ve said to the AFL-CIO and others that we want to work together where ever we can,” Burger said. “I think in some places we will form joint entities that work together on policy and political issues.”