Civil Unions

For a moment there, it almost looked as if the Democrats were getting their act together.

Leaders of the key Democratic constituency groups have begun meeting to develop a strategy and the wherewithal for winning the battleground states in the 2004 presidential election. On May 8 the president of Emily's List, Ellen Malcolm, hosted a gathering of the heads of various environmental, pro-choice, civil rights and labor organizations to look at how they could have the greatest impact in next year's race. (The gathering was a tribute, in its way, to the regular meetings of conservative leaders hosted by anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist.)

The centerpiece of the May 8 meeting was a presentation by Steve Rosenthal, until recently director of the AFL-CIO's political program and now director of the labor-backed Partnership for America's Families. The Partnership is one of myriad so-called 527s -- the tax code designation for organizations that are springing up now that campaign reform has banned the two parties from collecting soft money to fund voter registration and mobilization campaigns.

Rosenthal was speaking because long before the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill became law, the AFL-CIO began waging its own campaigns to turn out union members for pro-labor candidates. The unions' decision, quite daring at the time, to strike out on their own came shortly after John Sweeney became president of the AFL-CIO in 1995. Under the leadership of Sweeney and Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and longtime chairman of the AFL-CIO's political committee, labor developed the most successful get-out-the-vote program in the land. In 1994, the year of the last pre-Sweeney-and-McEntee election, voters from labor households constituted just 14 percent of the nation's electorate. By the election of 2000, that figure had risen to 26 percent, and 59 percent of those voters backed the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

The turnaround of labor's political program is the movement's signal achievement of the past decade. Had labor not moved the resources and developed the expertise to get its own political house in order, the Democrats would be in receivership today, rather than at a precarious parity with George W. Bush's Republicans. Working-class perspectives -- for instance, the need for universal health insurance -- would be marginalized within the party, rather than the centerpiece of several presidential campaigns.

But with union membership at an anemic 13 percent of the workforce, the union household vote can take the Democrats only so far. The goal of the Partnership is to augment labor's efforts with its own members by mobilizing the rest of the Democratic base -- in particular, the millions of African Americans, Latinos and working women who aren't union members. Any doubt that such a program is needed was effectively dispelled by the 2002 elections. As the Los Angeles Times exit poll and some election night polling by Fox News made clear, the Republicans owed their successes to a marked decline in African American and Latino voting.

In the election's wake, a number of unions concluded that the sooner the McEntee-Rosenthal operation could be brought to the rest of the Democratic base, the better. A $30 million registration, education and mobilization campaign ($20 million from unions, the remainder from other groups and individuals) is being put in place.

For Democrats, that's the good news. The bad news is that turf battles have arisen during the past couple weeks over the Partnership's mandate. The objections haven't come from the other Democratic constituencies -- one civil rights activist attending the May 8 meeting said, "I've attended 527 meetings about 527s, and this is the first one that made sense."

Ironically, the reservations have come from within labor itself, where certain cross-union constituency groups such as the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists have felt threatened by the Partnership. Stunningly, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson and McEntee himself have left the Partnership's board.

But the Partnership is the prime exponent of one of the few successful electoral models the Democrats have. In Los Angeles the success of that kind of campaign is evident in the labor movement's mobilization of non-union Latino voters, which has made the city a liberal bastion and California a Democratic stronghold. In Philadelphia, the Partnership, in its first few weeks in existence, has already registered 10,000 African American voters in preparation for this year's mayoral election. There is no way the Democrats can prevail in 2004 absent a massive, unified working-class mobilization based on the Sweeney-McEntee-Rosenthal model -- as Karl Rove well knows.

"John Sweeney and Jerry McEntee should be proud that their work has become the basis of the Democratic constituencies' political action programs," says Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which is a major backer of the Partnership. For either of them to pull back their support from this campaign for working-class votes would not only damage the Democrats' prospects, but also undermine their own historic achievement in revitalizing labor's political program and clout. It should hardly be necessary to remind them that in union there is strength.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of Prospect.

This column originally appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

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