WASHINGTON — U.S. President George W. Bush spent Labor Day just like he did last year. He attended a union picnic in Pennsylvania. The difference is that last year he was courting the steelworkers. This year it was the carpenters. He and his advisers seem intent on improving his showing among union voters.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Bush seem to understand each other very well, even though they have not spoken since Bush became president nearly 20 months ago. They are at war.

Sweeney is building the AFL-CIO into a potent political force in America and Bush knows that it will never be on his side in any election. With the exception of Carpenters Union President Douglas McCarron and Teamsters Union President James Hoffa Jr., the ranks of leadership in the AFL-CIO are cooperative and united as they focus on their electoral strength to protect their members.

As the percentage of union members in the American workforce continues to decline (it hit 9 percent last year, the lowest since 1901), the unions must rely on politics rather than pure numbers to influence American public policy. Sweeney understands this situation well and has devoted his efforts to strengthening the political action efforts of the unions. Under his leadership the unions have modernized their election machinery, strengthened their fundraising capacities to become a more important force within the Democratic Party.

Labor unions made up 11 of the top 20 PAC (political action committee) contributors to federal candidates in the 2000 election. And their money goes almost entirely to Democratic candidates.

The spending on soft money was in similar fashion. Labor gave more than $90 million: 94 percent to Democrats, 6 percent to the GOP. One can understand why the Republicans in this administration are not cooperating with Sweeney and his cohorts.

A newly passed election law will help the labor movement enhance its power in U.S. politics. The elimination of soft money puts a premium on PAC fund contributions, the so-called hard money. They may have 11 of the top 20 PACs, but they have been badly outspent in soft money. For the 2000 cycle, businesses poured $1.23 billion into the political parties and candidates — more than 10 times what the unions contributed.

Labor politicians have been planning for the new law and for the next elections for quite a while now. They have developed an organization to maximize their strengths, an ability to raise money and an organization of people who can turn out in almost every precinct in America. They are working in liaison with other organizations — like the American Trial Lawyers Association, a major fundraising group — and hope to have a hard-hitting national organization in place for the 2004 election.

One of the targets of their coalition is to control the state party organizations of the Democratic Party. Under the new law, the state parties will have the ability to use some soft money and be able to provide organizational support for candidates that the national party formerly supplied. At last count, they had been successful in electing members of the AFL-CIO to the chairmanship of more state parties than ever before.

The unions have different and difficult times ahead. The workforce has changed and more union members are women and minorities than ever before. The manufacturing and building jobs make up less of the total membership today as the unions depend on service employees and government workers for their new members. That presents a different challenge for union leaders and tends to broaden the political agenda of the movement from the basic labor-relations issues of the past.

But don’t underestimate the power of labor. Sweeney understands that politics is his bread and butter, and he has been very effective in building an organization that can deliver powerful political support. The union vote is not big enough to be decisive in many elections any more. But the unions are the most important single factor in determining the nominees in important Democratic primary elections. That’s power.

Labor Day (Monday) was the official start of the election season, even though candidates have been hard at it for months. It is time, though, when prognosticators and wags are expected to be able to see some clearing in their crystal balls and make some judgments about the eventual outcome. The situation continues to be cloudy and there is a lot of squirming going on among the experts.

This being the first election following the decennial redistricting, the House of Representatives races should be easy to decipher. The new districts were all drawn to create a partisan result, and the margins should be somewhat comfortable. When the new maps were all completed, psephologists suggested that there were fewer than 40 truly competitive districts in the country. That would seem to make things simple. Ninety percent of the races are preordained.

But nothing is ever quite that simple in politics. The rumbling of the world these past 12 months has shaken the electorate. The experts see the shaking and cannot determine what will settle and where. There are two overriding issues: (1) Terrorism and its related torments, including personal security, international activism designed to thwart the threats and so on; and (2) the economy, business and corporate misconduct.

Both issues are important to voters. Most of the electorate reacts to both issues, the pollsters tell us. The problem analyst are having is simple: Which of the two issues will be the controlling element when it comes time to vote?

Republicans tend to gain support from voters most concerned about the terrorism threats. Bush continues to get high marks for his actions and demeanor in the conduct of the war on terrorism and related activities. The predictions of last winter are holding up in part. “People appreciate what the president is doing to lead the country in this time of war and danger, and they will turn out to give him their support with their vote.”

Unfortunately, for the Republicans, other issues have intruded into the election stream and diluted the impact of the wartime presidency. The economy was buffeted by the winds of the terrorist attack just as it was coughing from its long-running expansion. The inability to grow has confounded the administration, and the corporate scandals that have made the news on a weekly basis for the past 10 months have voters trembling as they have watched their 401k plans and equity nest-eggs evaporate.

There has been a distinct change in the national climate in the past two months. The opinion of the votes on whether the nation is headed in the right direction took its sharpest downward turn in memory this summer. But how will this impact on individual races? How will it impact on those 40 to 60 genuine contests out there in the country where the election will be decided?

The cutting issues seem to be clear. Both Republican and Democrats are trying to handle them in their own way. “Corporate abuse” is very high on everybody’s list, although it seems to mask and include a litany of other economic security problems. Next is health care. Democrats are pounding away at these issues in their campaigns, and the Republican candidates are matching them pound for pound. For the most part, Republican candidates are joining them, not fighting them on many of the domestic questions. They do not care what the president thinks about his buddies in corporate America or about the cost of prescription drugs for the elderly. They want to get re-elected.

The president and the vice president are throwing up the international questions. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is getting a lot of attention from White House speech writers. The hope is that the voters will be so concerned about the terrorist next door that they will not vote on the domestic questions. I think they will be disappointed. Local issues tend to dominate midterm elections and I believe they will in 2002. That spells good news for the Democrats.

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