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Jewish World Review August 16, 2000 / 15 Menachem-Av, 5760

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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Consumer Reports

Part of the union, but not part of the party

The labour unions back the Democratic party heavily but not all their members are quite so committed -- THE NAME of that big American party holding its convention in Los Angeles this week isn't Labour, but you would never guess it to look at its finances. At every national election, organised labour pours millions into Democratic party coffers; election season 2000 is turning out no different.

After a bit of pro forma anti-Nafta grumbling, and even a display of flirtation with Ralph Nader, the Green party candidate, every big American union but the Teamsters has lined up behind Al Gore. No, the Teamsters didn't forget. They are just savouring their role as tease.

In Los Angeles, John Sweeney, leader of the AFL-CIO union confederation, is pledging $48m in resources to help the Gore-Lieberman ticket. Six of the 10 biggest Democratic donors this year are unions, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the government workers' union, leading the list. Tellingly, for America's litigious culture, trial lawyers are also strongly represented.

In addition, many thousands of workers will be assigned to campaign during work hours on the phone or in person for Democrats. So crucial is organised labour's contribution that it is the single most important financial factor influencing the decisive autumn phase of the presidential contest.

The aligning of a mainstream political party with a single-interest group is striking for a number of reasons. The first is that while Big Labour looms on the political stage, actual union membership in the private sector has withered. Today, 9 per cent of private-sector workers belong to unions, down from 24 per cent in 1973.

The second is that Republicans have no financial support mechanism like it. The Grand Old Party may swim in cash from rich donors but it lacks the near-automatic injection that Democrats receive from unions; every dollar the GOP spends is a dollar volunteered.

The unions may argue that they are merely balancing the interests of the rich and privileged with those of ordinary workers. But the union generals who are waging their pro-Democratic war do not have the support of all their troops. US workers are a diverse crowd. Since the days of the "blue-collar Reaganaut", a third of them have not voted for Democrats. In the 1996 presidential election, 36 per cent of union members voted for Bob Dole or Ross Perot. A similar breakdown is predicted this year.

The rank and file of two union groupings have a particularly good reason to complain. Manufacturing workers tend to favour protectionism, yet the Democrats have been pro-free trade. Many teachers abhor the idea of giving students at public schools vouchers to allow them more choice, yet Joseph Lieberman, the vice-presidential candidate, supports them.

The roots of union leaders' power lies back in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which tried to build up young unions. FDR, Congress and the courts gave them a new set of rights, and established a friendly administrative court, the National Labour Relations Board, to protect union authority. While postwar Congresses did much to prune unions' advantages, shop stewards and their higher-ups still enjoy considerable sway.

Take the use of dues for politics. In 1988, the Supreme Court heard a case on this. A telephone lineman, Harry Beck, objected to the political use of a share of his dues by the Communication Workers of America, this year's second biggest Democratic donor. The court found for Mr Beck, but over the years unions have done their best to bypass, ignore, and even cover up the existence of this decision. The result is that at least some of the millions proffered so gamely by Mr Sweeney at Los Angeles is stolen money.

Unions' political arrangements remain so closed that very few workers who want a rebate are able to collect one. Over the years, close to 1,000 workers have sought to retrieve their cash but the still-union friendly NLRB routinely ignores or delays such applications. State legislatures and courts, often Democrat-dominated, have often been no better, tending to side with unions.

In California itself, there are two good examples of such discontent. Professors in the state's university system are pursuing a class-action suit against unions, seeking to retrieve $8.5m in dues used for political purposes. And in Los Angeles this week, a group of $7.02-an-hour janitors working at Paramount Studios has launched a Beck suit against the Service Employees International Union, where Mr Sweeney first made his career.

The janitors are represented by the National Right to Work Legal Foundation, which is dedicated to the Beck cause. Their chance of rapid success is close to nil. The union cash cow is likely to remain a reliable source of Democrat funding for several reasons.

Both Democrat-led legislatures and the Clinton administration have done much to shore up the old labour edifice - and to isolate protesters. In his time President Bush signed an executive order requiring a notice of workers' rights on political dues to be posted in all workplaces. One of Mr Clinton's first acts was to sign an order yanking these notices.

The administration has systemically named union sympathisers to the Labour Relations Board. And the Democrats show little sign of allowing other views to be heard at the LA convention. As of Friday, the National Right to Work Foundation was still seeking to be accredited to the convention.

So the pattern of worker disenfranchisement looks set to continue. "Nothing, nothing, nothing," says Jorge Gabino, one of the janitors, when asked what his union told him about spending his $24-a-month dues. A genuine cry of protest from a worker as blue collar as they come, but not one likely to be heard within the closed Los Angeles hall.

JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


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