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Union defections could hurt Democrats

Major union defections from the AFL-CIO this week will damage, but not cripple, Big Labor's historical support of Democrats -- and could even help the party in the long run.

Political and labor experts said Tuesday that union support and fundraising for Democrats will become more fragmented and create an opportunity for the GOP to cherry-pick union endorsements.

But they agree that labor is not going to bolt from the Democratic Party, and that renewed efforts to organize workers should add votes for Democrats later on.

"The conventional wisdom is that it will make it tougher for Democrats. But it may be more wishful thinking on the part of Republicans," said Joseph Sabino Mistick, a Pittsburgh political analyst.

"If I were a Democratic Party leader, I wouldn't worry too much because (unions) have always backed Democrats," he said.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union seceded from the AFL-CIO on Monday after major disputes over political activity and organizing strategy. The Teamsters represent some 1.4 million workers, while the service workers' union represents about 1.8 million people.

Critics inside the break-away unions fault AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who is standing for re-election, for spending too much money and time on the election of political candidates, and not enough on labor organizing. Unions represented more than one-third of American workers in the 1950s but less than one-tenth today.

"I don't view this (split) as cataclysmic. It's really too early to say for sure," said veteran Pennsylvania political analyst G. Terry Madonna.

"But if both the Teamsters and SEIU do less political activity, and more membership drives, it will diminish the Democratic Party's ability to raise money for candidates," said Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster.

The Teamsters and service workers unions represent about one-fourth of the AFL-CIO's 13 million individual members. The two unions' dues to the federation account for about 17 percent of its $20 million budget.

Teamsters President James Hoffa said his union's break from the AFL-CIO will not decrease labor's contributions to Democratic candidates. "We will have as much or more money to organize and to be politically active," Hoffa told reporters in Chicago, the scene of the AFL-CIO convention.

House Democratic Whip Michael Veon, a Beaver Democrat, does not believe the split will hurt Democrats in statewide races. "If you run for statewide office, you always go to every single union individually and ask for their help and endorsement. That was true yesterday, it will be true today and tomorrow," said Veon.

But Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland, said the Teamsters and service workers union defection means Republicans can more easily peel off some major unions in presidential elections.

"It's good, old-fashioned divide and conquer," said Morici.

The AFL-CIO has about 900,000 members in Pennsylvania. The departure of Pennsylvania Teamsters and service workers cuts about 198,000 workers, or 22 percent, from those rolls. Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President William George could not be reached yesterday.

That labor split, locally and nationwide, should benefit the Republican Party, said Kent Gates, a consultant who works for Republican candidates and a former political director of the state GOP.

"It shows a divide in the leadership of the labor movement, which is the heart of the Democratic Party. It's driven by a decline in union membership, which is a huge problem for the Democratic Party," said Gates.

"Do I think this is going to generate a ton of (union) endorsements for Republican candidates• Of course not," he said. "But it will weaken solidarity and support for Democrats."

While the Teamsters have traditionally supported Republicans as well as Democrats, the SEIU has a record of solidly backing Democrats and won't likely change that pattern, said Gates.

"We'll support Republican candidates who want to help working people, the problem is they're harder to find than hen's teeth," said Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers of America, the Pittsburgh-based union which represents roughly 850,000 members.

Gerard expressed disappointment that the Teamsters and Service Employees International Union seceded from the federation. "That was a very short-sighted move by a couple of unions. This is a labor movement, not a social club, and building a movement is more than accumulating members. I hope they come to their senses and come around," he said.

James Williams, president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said "all politics is local," and his union has been adept at supporting candidates who share the union's vision, regardless of political party affiliation.

"This (split) makes politicians go to more than one place for support, but you work these guys as far as your own issues," said Williams, a Philadelphia native who boasts Pennsylvania House Speaker John M. Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican, as one of his biggest supporters.

Al Neri, editor of The Insider, a statewide political newsletter, said the split could "make it a little more difficult" for candidates seeking union support.

"I'm sure it was much easier when they were all part of the same labor coalition," Neri said. "Now, you're going to need to get sign-offs from two labor coalitions.

"Say, Bob Casey running for senator next year, or Ed Rendell running for governor, it seems to be it's an extra step, an extra layer of bureaucracy you have to cut through," he said.

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