THE POLITICS OF LABOR
Recent political face-offs on labor policy.
The NewsHour historians discuss the long relationship between politics and Big Labor.
Read about the turbulent origins of Labor Day.
A NewsHour debate about the AFL-CIO's massive advertising effort.
Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of economic issues.
Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of business issues.
A brief history of American Labor.
The AFL-CIO's home page.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act, he gave unions the exclusive right to bargain on behalf of workers. It was a measure designed to benefit the private sector, at a time when those workers needed that assistance. From that point, and through World War II, organized labor grew steadily, founded on that cause; during labor's peak in the early 1960's, when 35 percent of American workers belonged to unions, 95 percent of those members worked in the private sector. Labor could cast itself as the champion of the working man, defending him against big business and the cruelties of capitalism. The Democrats were the dominant party, and Labor's traditional alliance with the party of the working man was effective in mutual, and often open, support.
But the structure of the economy changed, and the private sector began to leave the unions behind. To compensate, labor turned its organizing efforts to the public sector, to a degree that today, more than 40 percent of U.S. labor members are public sector employees. This would prove damaging to the image of the union. When labor defends a government employee against its employees, it is taking on the taxpayers themselves. Not a corporate fat cat or the owner of a cramped, dingy, sweatshop, but the taxpayers, the American workers themselves. And thus a view of labor emerged as insular, as corrupt, and with deep ties to organized crime.
The nadir of Labor's influence in politics, and with Democrats, came in 1984, with Walter Mondale's run at the presidency. At the start of the primaries, the AFL-CIO stepped forward and gave Mondale its endorsement. Instead of boosting his chances, he was attacked from all sides as "beholden" to special interests, and just as Ronald Reagan became a hero for breaking the Air Traffic Controllers strike, Mondale's candidacy was injured, perhaps mortally, by a public distaste for the unions. Labor and the Democrats were dragging each other down.
And in 1994, 40 percent of union members broke ranks and voted Republican. The Gingrich Revolution was born, and the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest organization, underwent a major shakeup which landed John Sweeney atop the organization, promising to bring a fresh, aggressive labor movement into power.
In this campaign, Big Labor is investing heavily in a comeback. The AFL-CIO added a 15 cent-a-month dues assessment, approved by its members, that is financing its centerpiece of the election season, a $35 million television advertising campaign that kicked off during last winter's budget battle. The ads are targeted at specific Republicans that the AFL-CIO considers vulnerable, namely the 73 House freshmen elected in 1994. Its strategy is to win back Congress seat by seat, race by race, with local advertising in carefully chosen states and districts. Republicans are crying foul. Bill Paxon, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, accused the unions of "blatantly deceiving the American people." Gerald Mcentee, chair of the AFL-CIO political action committee, sums up the campaign as an attempt to:get as much information to working America...about what has happened in this session of the Congress in 1995, in 1996. The attacks that have been made on working people and what they've been able to achieve over the years, the attacks of health and safety in the work place, the attacks that have been made on their pension contributions and the utilization of that money by corporations, the reductions in Medicare, in Medicaid, and education.
The strategy has promise. The ads make special attempts to tie their targets' positions to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose negative ratings have soared in the past year. In the controversial agenda of the new Republican Congress, Labor has once again found an enemy.