The alliance of organized labor and the Democratic Party _ one of the cornerstones of American politics for 60 years _ has come on hard times. Some Democrats on Capitol Hill see the union leadership as old and out of touch. Some labor leaders think the Democrats are ingrates and political chameleons. But like an unhappy couple, they have so much invested in each other they cannot seriously contemplate divorce.
Last week, when Democrats celebrated John Olver's narrow 2-point victory in a special election that ended almost 100 years of Republican control of western Massachusetts' 1st Congressional District, it was as much labor's win as anyone's.
William Rosen, press spokesman for the new congressman, was simply confirming the obvious when he said, "We received a lot of support from labor, both financial and people on the street. It was the key to our victory."
That is so commonplace for Democrats, it is hardly news. But this example occurred just after the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate had abandoned labor's priority legislative issue so far this year, by helping pass the "fast-track" authority that opens the way for President Bush to negotiate a free-trade agreement between the United States and Mexico. Labor's pressure _ and arguments that the agreement would shift U.S. jobs to low-wage Mexican factories _ persuaded most Democratic senators and representatives to oppose the measure. But with many of the top Democrats supporting the president, Bush got what he wanted _ and labor got an embarrassing defeat.
Among the defectors in the Senate were Majority Leader George Mitchell, Maine, and such big-shots as Sens. Lloyd Bentsen, Texas, Joseph Biden, Del., Bill Bradley, N.J., Albert Gore, Jr., Tenn., Edward Kennedy, Mass., Bob Kerrey, Neb., and Jay Rockefeller, W.
Va. In the House, Speaker Tom Foley did not vote, but three of his four Washington-state Democratic colleagues opposed labor's position. So did Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, Mo., and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, Ill.
Leadership aides say privately that AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and labor overplayed their hand, that the movement toward a North American trading bloc has too much economic logic and political momentum to derail. But whatever the merits, this issue and others have put the Democratic-labor alliance under heavy strain.
Even though he pointed out in an interview that labor will have another shot when the negotiated Mexican agreement comes back to Capitol Hill for approval, Kirkland did not hide his "disenchantment that on a great issue that affects the livelihood and survival of our constituents," the Democratic congressional leadership took a walk.
And it's not the first time. Last autumn, Mitchell, Foley and Gephardt supported a budget agreement with the Bush administration that labor opposed. Largely as a result of that budget agreement, this recession has seen no stimulative measures _ or even liberalized unemployment benefits _ passed by Congress.
Now labor is not waiting for next year's primaries to flex its muscles. On Aug. 31, the AFL-CIO will hold "Solidarity Day Two," aiming to assemble more than 200,000 rank-and-file members in Washington to call for a national health care plan and passage of legislation barring employers from permanently replacing striking workers with new employees.
"We're not in any way confrontational," Kirkland said of his attitude toward the Democratic leadership. But he also warned that the "vagueness of the Democratic message" causes more and more working families "to question if it really makes a difference" who gets elected. "I would go a step further and say that is why they are losing at the national level."
Kirkland said the Democrats need a candidate "who can shake the barley .
. on issues that are important to the traditional base," not the "New Age issues" that he said have come to define liberalism.
So is Solidarity Day designed to send a message to the Democratic leadership? "Yes," said Kirkland. And that message, he added, can be found in the old labor anthem: Which Side Are You On?
Washington Post Writers Group