US Labor and the Elections

Jonupstny at Jonupstny at
Sat May 25 22:24:29 MDT 1996

I thought this article was worth sending to the list. While the content of
 the unions' political work is pro-Democratic party, the dynamic of the form
it is taking, given the right circumstances, may come back to haunt the

Jon Flanders

May 25, 1996


   CANTON, Ohio -- National labor leaders have vowed that unions will play a
historic role in this year's presidential and congressional races, and indeed
there is evidence here that a sizable grass-roots push has begun.

   "I want every one of your locals to go out and get a fax machine!" Joe
Holcomb, a member of the United Steelworkers of America's new "Rapid
Response" political-action team, recently told a gathering here of leaders
>from 20 union locals.

   There was more. "You will all need a designated line for your fax," said
John Mroczkowski, a district leader for the steelworkers. "You can't just use
your phone line. This fax has to be ready to go at any time. We're serious
about this -- this comes right from the top, from George Becker himself."

   For the half-million United Steelworkers across the country, a fax in
every union hall is the engine for the "Rapid Response" program created by
the union's national president, Becker. The goal is to have 4 percent of the
rank and file ready to mobilize as soon as word comes from international
headquarters by fax, whether that means hopping on a bus to a political rally
or firing off letters to a local congressman.

   Without a doubt, the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress got the attention
of the local union leaders here and has moved them to mobilize in a way not
seen in northeast Ohio in a long while. The leadership's hope is to re-elect
President Clinton and help the Democrats recapture Congress. Or, as
Mroczkowski explained at the Stark County Rapid Response gathering, "If Newt
and the blow boys had it their way down there, we'd already be history!"

   Last week, 40 leaders from Ohio's AFL-CIO councils met in Columbus to hear
their state president, Bill Burga, map out election strategy.

   "This is the most important election since 1958," Burga said, referring to
the unions' greatest poltical victory in Ohio, when they defeated an
anti-union "right-to-work" referendum and propelled a Democratic takeover of
the legislature, the governor's office and a United States Senate seat. "All
you folks need to get off your rear ends and lead this campaign!" he said.

   In the past, the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington would send a couple of
national staffers to Ohio a month before the November election, Burga said.
"That wasn't enough time for them to do anything."

   Six months before this year's election there are already three AFL-CIO
national staffers working full time in the districts of the state's three
Republican congressmen considered most vulnerable: Rep. Steve Chabot of
Cincinnati; Rep. Martin R. Hoke of Cleveland; and Rep. Frank A. Cremeans of

   For the first time in years, the midwestern region of the plumbers and
pipefitters' union has members touring Ohio, four people visiting every
county board of elections to match union membership lists against the rolls
of registered voters. The names of those not registered will be sent to local
presidents, like Dan Fonte of Canton, who will be able to run well-targeted
registration drives.

   Using this approach, Steve Pickard, president of the public-employees
union representing Canton city workers, says he now has 305 of his 310
members registered to vote.

   After being elected international president of the AFL-CIO last year, John
J. Sweeney pledged $35 million to educate workers, get out the vote and wage
an aggressive advertising campaign to help the Democrats regain control of
Congress. Here in Stark County, where the two largest employers are steel
companies, the Timken Co. and Republic Engineered Steels, the steelworkers
have launched the most ambitious electoral effort.

   Their Rapid Response program has been a year in the making. Holcomb, the
president of a steelworkers' local in nearby Alliance, was chosen as a
coordinator after going through a week of training last summer at the union's
educational headquarters near Pittsburgh.

   In his speech to the 20 Stark County leaders, Holcomb explained that the 4
percent picked for Rapid Response should be rank and file members, not
officers. The first mobilizations will be letter-writing campaigns to
Congress over traditional union issues like the minimun wage, right-to-work
legislation, and efforts to change pension laws and weaken safety and health
inspection standards.

   "If you have a large local -- 200, 300 letters -- don't mail them all at
once," he said, "Spread them over two to three days so it comes to the
congressman in waves. It's more impressive."

   Past union political activity has focused on getting members to support
Democratic candidates. This caused considerable resentment among some
rank-and-file members who have felt they were being told how to vote. Before
Holcomb could get very far into the session, Steve Knox, a union leader from
Massillon, raised his hand and said, "You're not going to use this to tell us
what candidates to endorse, are you? You know we have Republicans and

   "I know," said Holcomb. "I did the registration drive for my local -- I
was surprised how many Republicans. This is issues."

   Said Mroczkowski, "We're trying to get these guys to stop talking about
the Bulls game and start talking about what's going on in Washington."

   The hope of the union leadership -- which was never actually expressed out
loud at the meeting -- is that by involving members in letter-writing
campaigns over legislation, the rank and file will learn the threat that
Republicans in Congress pose to unions on basic workplace issues and decide
on their own to vote Democrat.

   Even so, several times during the hourlong session, Mr Holcomb said, "I
know a lot of you don't like Clinton, but I think he's our best choice."

   Ron Stokes is the president of the 4,300-member local at Timken, one of
the largest in the nation. He has worked in the mills 30 years, been active
in union leadership nearly 20 and says that in that time "this is the biggest
political push I've seen."

   A lifelong Democrat, Stokes has watched recent elections with dismay as
Republicans siphoned off union votes by focusing on issues like gun control
and abortion. "Some union members vote because of a stand on abortion or on
guns, but they need to understand the real issues that matter to workers," he
said. "If they don't have a job, everything else is a moot point."

   The Timken local was chosen last fall as a pilot for Rapid Response test
runs and Stokes was impressed with how smoothly the letter-writing campaign
worked. But he also says he has had trouble getting the requested 4 percent,
175 in his case, to take part. "We've generally had 50 to 75," he said. Not
only is union membership dwindling, it's also aging and growing more
conservative. The average steelworker at Timken is about 50.

   Across the nation, 16 percent of workers belong to unions, which is about
half what the rate was during the 1950's.

   When Knox heard the 4 percent goal, he said, "Four percent? I can't get 4
percent to come to a union meeting."

   Stokes said he believes the drive will succeed because it has to. "We have
said we will make a difference," he said, "This will tell us, as organized
labor, how we stand."

Copyright 1996 The New York Times

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