Below the Beltway: New Labor, New Democrats -- New Alliance?

Washington, D.C.

On April 27, Al From, the president of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and Will Marshall, the president of the DLC's Progressive Policy Institute, had lunch with John Swee ney, the president, and Steve Rosenthal, the political director, of the AFL-CIO. These four people had met but had never talked amicably or seriously together before. Since that luncheon, there have been further discussions on the phone, and From and Marshall have met with the leaders of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association. When I talked to Marshall in June, he was on his way to Montreal to speak at the executive committee of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Nothing may come of these discussions and meetings. They may be comparable to the interlude between the Napoleonic Wars. But they do represent a significant shift in the DLC's politics that could have positive repercussions in the Democratic Party. Since the DLC's founding in 1985, the organization has had virtually nothing positive to say about organized labor. When From and Marshall attacked the "politically powerful interests" that controlled the Democratic Party, they were referring primarily to the AFL-CIO and its unions. They never mentioned labor except to criticize it. They railed against teachers unions for opposing charter schools and public employee unions for resisting outsourcing and industrial unions for opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). When I was interviewing From in spring 1996 about Clinton, of whom he was then critical, he contrasted Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers in 1982 with Clinton's unwillingness to defy Democratic interest groups. "Reagan was so good," From said. "He went ahead and did PATCO. He didn't wait for approval. With Clinton, you would have said, 'You have to check with labor first.' "

Labor, of course, reciprocated in full the DLC's sentiments. One way to get a labor official like Richard Trumka off script and onto a freely associated stream of invective was to ask his opinion of the DLC. If anything, relations between the DLC and labor had become more acerbic over the past three years. From compares the battles between labor and the DLC over welfare reform in 1996 and over the balanced budget and fast track in 1997 to the three Ali-Frazier fights. But From and Marshall decided they wanted to get out of the ring, and the AFL-CIO's top officials agreed tentatively to step out with them.

The first sign of change appeared in the DLC's magazine, the New Democrat, in their May-June 1997 issue. Marshall solicited an article from Jim Grossfeld, a labor consultant who had been Trumka's communications director at the United Mine Workers and AFSCME President Gerald McEntee's speechwriter. Grossfeld's article detailed reasons why the labor movement had de clined, but also cited several experiments by the AFL-CIO to organize in the new information economy. The article's inclusion reflected Marshall's philosophical openness rather than an overall change in the organization's policy. In the immediate aftermath of the fast track battle, the magazine published a bruising attack on the "left-wing" AFL-CIO by an editor of the Forward, a Jewish newsweekly whose editorial positions are similar to those of the Wall Street Journal.

But From and Marshall had second thoughts about renewing the battle with the AFL-CIO. Labor's "obvious success" with fast track, Marshall explained, convinced them that "there has to be some engagement between the two forces." From, in particular, was not just concerned about Capitol Hill, but about the battles for Congress and for state and local office that would take place in 1998 and in years following. The DLC has now organized local and state chapters and a political ac tion committee, the New Democratic Network, that will donate more than a million dollars this year to Democratic candidates. From believes that without the kind of moderate candidates the DLC recruits, the Democrats will not win back Congress and will continue to lose ground in critical statehouse races. From explained:

Labor still has a lot of power, but most of it is focused on political money. If we are going to build a progressive majority, we can't have labor money going against New Democrats. We aren't going to get anywhere if the political message and the party's political infrastructure go in different directions.

From also understood that Sweeney might be receptive to an overture from the DLC. The AFL-CIO's campaign to unseat the Republican House in 1996 had demonstrated its muscle, but its brazen partisanship also had opened the federation to attack from Republicans in the House and from conservative activists around the country, who were mounting a drive in Congress and in the states to prevent unions from using dues money for political purposes without the prior consent of individual union members. Such legislation could cripple labor as a political force. From decided to back the AFL-CIO against its enemies. At the state dinner for British Prime Minister Tony Blair in February, From told Sweeney he wanted to help him fight the paycheck protection act in Congress and in California, where Proposition 226 loomed.

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At the same time, From also pushed the New Democrat to do a special labor issue. The March-April issue, "Why America Needs a New Labor," featured articles showing how labor unions were creating "high performance workplaces" in Wisconsin, meeting the challenge of privatization in Indianapolis, and beginning to organize the white-collar professionals of the "new economy." It also included an editorial by From, "Don't Muzzle Labor," attacking payroll protection. Despite his differences with the AFL-CIO on trade or charter schools, From wrote:

I believe working Americans need a strong labor movement. I believe working Americans, including those represented by organized labor, are -- and always should be -- a vital part of the Democratic party. And I will fight until the end for working Americans' right to express themselves in national politics through their labor unions -- even when they are expressing positions with which I vehemently disagree.

From sent the magazine to Sweeney with a note, and when the labor leader called him back to thank him, the two men set up the lunch for April.

From and Marshall appear determined to continue along this path, and they are getting some positive response, particularly from the teachers organizations and from the SEIU, Sweeney's old union. Jim Grossfeld was im pressed by his own encounter with the DLC. "I find they have a lot of thoughtful things to say. Part of it is that the DLC folks are an interesting mix of provocative ideas and intense political pragmatism." There is, however, still considerable resistance within labor to any rapprochement with the DLC. When I called several union officials and a top advisor to Sweeney to ask their opinion about the meeting between the DLC and AFL-CIO, I encountered the same hostility as before. The head of a labor institute:

I don't think the labor people have had a brain transplant and I don't think the DLC people have either.

The Sweeney advisor:

If Al From genuinely likes us, I am going to get scared. The point is that the candidates they are supporting are not going to be candidates we are going to support. What they really need is a soul transplant.

The head of communications at an international union:

It worries me. I hope [the DLC] doesn't influence the politics of the AFL-CIO.

Most labor officials I talked to believe the DLC is simply fronting for the Gore campaign, but I don't think this is so. The DLC would like Gore to win -- he is one of their original members -- but they are much more focused on creating a Democratic majority in the country. Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute since its founding, gave this explanation of the change:

They are becoming a real organization. They've started forming state units, but still compared to labor and the liberals, the liberal base is more solid. It is a question of where they go after Clinton. The big thing now is their relationship with labor. They were antilabor, but now they realize they have to cooperate with labor.

Historian Fred Siegel, who is a member of the New Democrat's editorial board, also explains the DLC's change this way:

They recognize there is sufficient difference of interests in the party and that they are not strong enough to encompass them. They have to coexist with labor. If [New] Democrats are going to govern effectively on a local level, they have to have a better relationship with labor.

My view is that the DLC's change of heart is to be welcomed. In its early years, the DLC was largely a party faction representing Chuck Robb, Sam Nunn, and other conservative-to-moderate southern Democrats. But after the 1988 election and the founding of the Progressive Policy Institute, From and Marshall turned the DLC into an alternative party organization with its own platform and candidates. It has also been a major source, for better or worse, of new ideas within the party, some of which have been tactical. After 1988 the DLC made the case that if Democrats wanted the electorate to take their economic proposals seriously, they would have to "inoculate" themselves against Republican charges that they were indifferent to crime and opposed to welfare reform. Clinton employed these tactics with notable success in 1992.

The DLC and PPI have also advanced a raft of substantive reforms -- from national service and reinventing government to partial privatization of Social Security and managed competition in health care. Some of those proposals, like national service or the earned income tax credit, have been entirely positive. Others, like the proposal for partial privatization of Social Security, have appeared to reflect the predominance of business and market values in the organization. (When the DLC's allies in the House of Representatives were organizing a caucus, some of them wanted to call themselves the "Business Democrats.") The DLC's hard-line positions on trade have also displayed an almost willful blindness to what really worries labor unions -- that these agreements are meant to facilitate not the export of goods but of capital. But the DLC's overture to labor -- if it is not merely tactical and transient -- could broaden its outlook and lead it, perhaps, to give more credence to labor's side of these issues.

The AFL-CIO could also benefit from having to engage the DLC's ideas. Through Bill Galston, David Osborne, and other intellectuals Marshall and From have recruited, the DLC has shown a determination to devise policies that fit the future of the country rather than its past. The lead article in the New Democrat's labor issue, "New Unions for a New Economy," by three researchers from the Keystone Research Center, is a case in point. It tries to answer the question that puzzles all of us who worry about labor's future: How can you have unions in an environment increasingly dominated by decentralized, part-time, and short-term employment? I haven't encountered anything from the AFL-CIO publications or the think tanks the union supports that addresses this question as clearly and forcefully.

And the AFL-CIO could clearly use the DLC's help politically. Labor can win congressional elections in Paterson, New Jersey, but not in Walnut Creek or the Sacramento Valley. And the Republican Congress of 1995-1996 demonstrated that labor can suffer a worse fate than the election of northern California's Ellen Tau scher and central Michigan's Debbie Stabenow to Congress. Working together, the AFL-CIO and DLC could regain a Democratic congressional majority. Working at cross-purposes, they are likely to cede control of Congress to people like Dick Armey and Tom DeLay. That alone is reason to be happy that the leaders of the DLC and the AFL-CIO got together for lunch this spring.

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