By Dick Meister

THE AFL-CIO vs. President Bush and congressional Republicans: It's
shaping up as one of the most important political battles in many years,
with great implications for all ordinary Americans, union or non-union,
working or not working.

Organized labor's stake is clear.  Rarely has there been a more anti-union
president than Bush.  His attempts to mortally wound the AFL-CIO surpass
even those of the notoriously anti-union Ronald Reagan, and Bush's allies in
Congress' GOP majority are as determined to bury labor.

The stake for others is as clear. Most people stand to lose big -- or to
win big -- depending on what the AFL-CIO manages to accomplish in its
attempt to make government more responsive to the needs of the majority
rather than merely the wealthy few.

Granting huge tax cuts to the rich at the expense of vital services for
millions of the non-affluent and seriously threatening their civil rights
and civil liberties ....

Taking away the union and civil service rights of some federal employees,
cutting back raises that had been due them and most others and moving to
shift as many as 850,000 federal jobs to private non-union contractors ....

Appointing an anti-union secretary of labor and anti-union majority to the
National Labor Relations Board ... making it harder for unions to finance
political activities and routine day-to-day operations ... blocking strikes
against anti-union airlines ....

Rescinding or weakening job safety regulations ... opposing an increase in
the pitifully inadequate minimum wage of $5.15 an hour ...  undermining the
rights of workers for overtime pay and leaves to care for ill family members

Failing to deal with chronic unemployment and the need for massive job
creation and job training programs ... approving trade agreements that do
not guarantee workers' rights ... trying to require federal contractors to
actively dissuade employees from joining unions ... rescinding a rule
limiting the award of government contracts to companies that repeatedly
violate labor or environmental laws ....

All that, and much more the Bush administration has done, much of it in
conjunction with Congress.  It's part of what AFL-CIO President John Sweeney
calls "a tidal wave of worker-bashing and union busting."

Hard as it might be to imagine, it could very well get worse if Bush is
re-elected next year.  As President Jim Spinosa of the International
Longshore and Warehouse Union warns, "A second term Bush will slash and burn
workers without ever having to worry about another election.  Things are bad
now, but if we fail in 2004, the labor movement will face a real nightmare."

It's no wonder that denying Bush and the GOP's congressional majority
re-election is the top priority of the AFL-CIO and its 66 affiliated unions.

They have already begun laying the groundwork for next year's campaign, the
most ambitious political campaign in union history.  Working with
like-minded liberal groups and their Democratic Party allies, the unionists
hope to mount massive voter registration and turnout drives, to circulate
millions of leaflets, make hundreds of thousands of direct contacts with
voters, hold innumerable rallies and demonstrations, and more.

Pretty standard stuff, hut very effective if sufficiently large numbers of
campaigners are involved -- and no one has a greater potential number of
campaign troops than labor and its allies.

Don't he misled by the constant reiteration that unions represent only about
13 percent of the country's workers. That's 16 million-plus people, more
than enough to supply the necessary foot soldiers -- if they are willing to
enlist. Given what Bush has been doing to them, many should he more than

Who, if anyone, labor's troops will support in the Democrats' presidential
primaries is unclear, although outspokenly pro-lahor Congressman Richard
Gephardt of Missouri seems the most likely.

Issues rather than candidates -- aside from Bush -- will be labor's focus,
in any case, during the primaries as well as the final election next year.

Health care reform, the principal concern of many voters, is certain to be a
major concern of labor's campaigners.

The AFL-CIO's Executive Council spelled it out:  "We need to turn the 2004
elections into a referendum on whether Americans should finally be able to
get affordable, high quality health care with the right to choose their own

President Andy Stern of the Service Employees, one of the AFL-CIO's largest
and most influential unions, says that means candidates will get labor
backing only if they have an affordable plan to provide health insurance to
all Americans through employers, the federal government or a combination of

Providing more federal help to education and shoring up the Social
Security and Medicare programs are among labor's other key issues.

But ridding us of George W. Bush and his reactionary cohorts in Congress
is, and must be, labor's overriding issue -- and that of everyone else.

Copyright c 2003 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist who
has covered labor and political issues for four decades.

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