Labor to Clinton: No Thanks

jkosterl@njdc.com

Whatever happened to thank-you notes? President Clinton took Gerald W. McEntee out for a spin on Air Force One, invited McEntee and his wife to a White House state dinner, and recently appointed McEntee, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), to a blue-ribbon health care commission.

But in late April, McEntee summoned a bunch of reporters and blasted the White House for starting its second term on the wrong foot. "We're concerned with the direction of the President and the Administration in a number of areas," he said.

McEntee and his union have extended the President a few courtesies of their own. McEntee was one of the first labor leaders to endorse Clinton during the Democratic primaries back in 1992, when most of them were backing Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.

In the last campaign, AFSCME contributed $1.1 million in "soft money" to national Democratic committees, the second-highest amount from any group. It also snapped up $322,464 in inaugural tickets and, despite a ban on labor or corporate contributions to Clinton's legal defense fund, got members to contribute $4,000, according to documents that former White House aide Harold M. Ickes released earlier this year.

Moreover, McEntee, president of the AFL-CIO's political committee, was largely responsible for the federation's aggressive political advertising campaigns and get-out-the-vote drives, which not only helped Clinton, but slimmed down the GOP's majorities in the House. "I thought we won the elections," McEntee griped at the press conference.

At first glance, McEntee's laments might seem surprising. After all, many recent Clinton Administration proposals, which don't require congressional action, were calculated to please labor.

Vice President Al Gore arrived at the February meeting of the AFL-CIO's executive council (of which McEntee is a member) in Los Angeles with the promise of an executive order that would require government suppliers to have "satisfactory" labor practices and might compel federal construction projects to use unionized workers. The Administration got several U.S. companies to sign a voluntary "anti-sweatshop" agreement. Executives pledged to abide by basic pay and working standards in overseas factories. Clinton also promised federal workers that they could take additional, unpaid leave for family or medical reasons. He told labor leaders that he would declare workfare enrollees to be employees--making them eligible for the minimum wage and perhaps able to unionize.

But because Republicans and business leaders considered the executive order that Gore promised such a giveaway, a Senate vote on Alexis M. Herman, Clinton's choice for Labor Secretary, was delayed until April 30, when the President agreed to back off from the idea.

In any event, labor sees most of the President's policy gestures as more symbol than substance--much like the favors showered on McEntee. Being on board Air Force One can be nice, but not if you're simply going to be taken for a ride.

Even the promised executive order--which could have meant money and power for the building trades unions--was viewed from the start by some labor leaders with a sense of deje vu.

At last year's AFL-CIO executive council meeting, recalls Teamsters political director William Hamilton, Gore "showed up with a bag of goodies" that included a promised executive order barring federal contractors from hiring permanent replacements for strikers. Labor cheered, he recalls, although union lawyers worried that the order wouldn't hold up in court.

It didn't--and this year's promised executive order had already been vastly whittled down in negotiations with congressional Republicans.

"It's all part of a pattern," Hamilton said. "At the beginning of a Republican Congress, the White House stakes out the high ground with labor." But the Administration doesn't always hold its ground. Clinton's favors matter little, next to the damage labor fears from Clinton's To Do list: a balanced budget agreement with Congress and new free-trade agreements.

McEntee summed up labor's concerns concisely: The Administration has seemed willing to cede too much to Republicans on Medicare, Medicaid, capital gains and inheritance taxes. And it's sending mixed signals on whether to lower the consumer price index--which would slow the rise in Social Security benefits and, perhaps, in workers' wages as well.

McEntee, who represents 1.3 million public service workers, also has a set of bread-and-butter concerns. Most of them concern Clinton's promise to retrofit last year's welfare reform bill. The President, McEntee complained, has not spelled out the details of his proposed $3 billion plan to help create jobs for welfare recipients, or fulfilled his promise on workfare enrollees.

AFSCME is worried that Clinton may bow to pressure from some Republican governors and allow states such as Texas to contract out the administration of their welfare programs to private firms. That could lead to an erosion of membership in what has been one of organized labor's few growth areas.

McEntee says he can't figure out why the Administration would consider breaking faith with labor--especially given that Gore could well face a race against labor-friendly House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri for the Democratic nomination in 2000.

But he probably knows all too well. In the last election, Clinton made it clear that he was drifting to the center--and labor backed him anyway. There's no guarantee that the Democratic nominee won't do the same in 2000.

If anyone understands that kind of pragmatism, it is McEntee. "It would be great to have a candidate who says everything we want," he told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, explaining why he backed Clinton in 1992, "but if they don't get inside that White House . . . then that isn't worth three cents."

For all of labor's vaunted talk of a political comeback during the last elections, and despite the Republicans' complaints of labor-bought elections, it appears that labor is still more the captive of Democrats than vice versa.

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