Why the ALF-CIO chief is backing Gore

John Sweeney is no democrat. He pretends that he is a champion of "working families" and that he aims to "make their voices heard" in the political process. But the AFL-CIO president refuses to acknowledge that half of union members disagree with his politics.

Indeed, the latest Voter.com-Battleground poll indicates that George W. Bush is running just about even with Al Gore among union households. Yet Sweeney has thrown the full support of the labor federation behind the Democratic presidential candidate.

Between now and November, big labor will spend more than $100 million trying to get Gore elected. In so doing, Sweeney and his fellow union bosses will disenfranchise the half of rank-and-file union members who favor the Republican.

And what is profoundly undemocratic, not to mention unconstitutional, is that Sweeney and his fellow union bosses will be using the compulsory dues of politically dissenting union members -- those who want to see Bush in the White House -- to undermine their vote.

The reason the AFL-CIO and other unions can get away with this is that the politically corrupt Clinton administration refuses to enforce the Supreme Court's 12-year-old Beck decision.

In Beck, the justices declared that union members can only be required to pay dues and fees that are directly related to the costs of collective bargaining and contract administration. Workers cannot be compelled to finance a union's political and lobbying activity.

The AFL-CIO and other unions attributed the Beck decision to a high court stacked by Republican presidents. But the majority opinion was written by Justice William Brennan, a liberal jurist who could hardly be considered a foe of organized labor.

Indeed, Brennan and his fellow justices were guided by the words of Thomas Jefferson, who declared: "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical."

John Sweeney is obviously no Jeffersonian. The AFL-CIO president and his comrades on the labor federation's executive council insist that merely informing rank-and-file members of their rights under Beck would somehow constrain "the ability of unions to communicate with their members about issues important to them."

But what Sweeney and other union bosses really fear is that, if workers are fully apprised of their Beck rights, if they know they are entitled to a refund of the portion of their dues that goes to political activity, the AFL-CIO and other unions will have far less money to spend on behalf of Gore and Democrats.

Indeed, at the AFL-CIO's biennial convention last October in Los Angeles during which the labor federation formally endorsed Gore for president, Sweeney also announced that the union would spend a whopping $46 million to defeat Republicans in 35 congressional districts in 15 states.

"We will clean out the House," Sweeney declared. "That's a promise and commitment I intend for us to keep."

But not nearly all AFL-CIO members want to return the House to Democratic hands. In fact, 36 percent of union households voted for Republicans in the 1998 congressional races, according to Voter News Service. In 1996, 46 percent went Republican. And in 1994, 40 percent voted Republican.

So if Sweeney intends to spend so much money this year to elect Democrats to Congress, then 36 percent to 46 percent of the AFL-CIO's rank-and-file members are entitled to Beck refunds.

And by the same coin, 50 percent of the $100 million or so that the AFL-CIO intends to spend on Gore's behalf between now and November should be refunded to union members who prefer Bush.

Of course, Sweeney is not about to offer refunds to politically dissenting union members. The AFL-CIO president maintains that whatever candidates he and his comrades on the labor federation's executive council decide to support, the rank and file must also support with their compulsory union dues, Beck be damned.

That's why Sweeney desperately wants to elect Gore to the White House. It's about self-preservation. He figures that a Bush administration would be more vigilant in protecting the Beck rights of the nation's unionized workers. And that would mean less political power for him and other labor bosses.

Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.


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