Unions Hunt for Campaign Cash

The AFL-CIO, in an election year with control of Congress at stake, finds itself far short of the $35 million it wants to spend on campaigns and is weighing a mandatory assessment of its member unions.

Gerald McEntee, the AFL-CIO's political chairman and president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal hs ago had identified sources for only about $7 million of the $35 million it wants.

Campaign finance legislation nearing passage in Congress includes some spending and coordination constraints on unions, corporations and special-interest groups, but the changes probably won't apply to this year's elections. Republicans have pushed unsuccessfully for tougher restrictions on unions' political fund raising and spending, including obtaining members' consent to spend dues money on politics.

Labor unions are big backers of Democrats, who cling to a one-seat majority in the Senate and are a handful of seats away from controlling the House. Thirty-six governorships also are up for election in November.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney will offer a new budget next week to the federation's executive council in New Orleans "that will shift resources into our priority programs while reducing staff and other expenses," he said in a letter to the council. Those priorities are politics and organizing.

A mandatory special assessment charged per member per union is being considered to help permanently fund the federation's political program. But that idea is deepening an already divided labor movement.

In the past, the AFL-CIO has asked for voluntary assessments, such as $1 per member per month for two years in the last election cycle, to raise money for issue ads, get-out-the-vote efforts and member education. But some unions complained that they carried the financial weight while others refused to contribute.

The idea of a mandatory assessment -- which ultimately would be spent to support Democrats -- angers several unions that are closer to the Republicans and the Bush administration.

Despite the $100 million to $130 million spent by unions in the past three election cycles, Republicans would have complete control if it wasn't for Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, who became an independent last year, said Mike Mathis, government affairs director for the Teamsters, which works both sides of the aisle.

"So I question the wisdom of this all-Democrats-all-the-time strategy," he said.

Teamsters President James P. Hoffa was a guest of honor at President Bush's State of the Union speech, and Bush a few weeks earlier had visited Teamsters headquarters.

McEntee, the federation's political chairman, acknowledged that the labor split creates problems. He said it was critical that all 66 affiliate unions be involved in a political effort.

"Maybe we step back from the federation's political program," McEntee said. "There are ways to deal with it," such as encouraging union members to seek office and contributing to those campaigns.

Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, the largest in the federation, agreed.

"The AFL has to accentuate -- which I think they've done much better at -- that they are interested in issues," Stern said. "But I think there are a lot of people that would still like us to be an adjunct to the Democratic Party."

The AFL-CIO has already made some cuts to tighten its budget. It has merged its Working Women department with its Civil and Human Rights office, and collapsed its union education department into the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in Silver Spring, Md. Early retirement packages have also been offered.

Much of the shortfall is being blamed on the recession, which has led to thousands of layoffs of union members, and unexpected expenses from the terrorist attacks. The federation also lost a big dues-paying member last year, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, which has about 300,000 members.