Labor unions successfully leaned on several House Democrats to cross party lines and vote in favor of President Bush's energy plan last week, a victory that offers a glimpse into how organized labor is coming to terms with the Republican administration it fought to keep out of power.
Two unions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, lobbied hard in the House for provisions that would allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and set fuel efficiency standards for cars and sport utility vehicles far below what environmentalists had sought.
The unions argued that both measures would create or save jobs and were in the best interests of their members. The Teamsters said the drilling provision could mean more than 700,000 jobs for them. The United Auto Workers, which did not weigh in on the drilling issue, estimated that thousands of their best jobs would be lost if higher fuel efficiency standards prevailed because demand for SUVs would plummet.
Labor's position on these issues put them in the Republican corner. The unions persuaded enough Democrats to take their side and ensure passage of the energy plan. Thirty-six Democrats, including Paul E. Kanjorski (Pa.), James L. Oberstar (Minn.), and James E. Clyburn (S.C.) voted to support the drilling provision; 86 voted in favor of the legislation's provision on fuel standards.
Many of those Democrats said the Teamsters made an impressive pitch. They armed themselves with information on new, more environmentally friendly drilling technology, for example.
"I thought the way they conducted themselves that maybe they have more experience [on the issue] than the environmentalists," said Clyburn, adding that he did not have any one-on-one meetings with union officials and supported the drilling provision early on.
After working so hard to defeat Bush and House Republicans in the last election -- about 95 percent of the $83 million they spent in the 2000 elections went to Democrats -- the unions have shown an increasing willingness to reach out to Republicans whom they may have snubbed in the past, said some analysts. Last week's event was an extreme example, but it highlights a shift in the labor movement.
"I think there's more of a pragmatism in terms of their legislative approach," said Marshall Wittmann, of the conservative Hudson Institute, a policy research group in Washington.
The Teamsters and the UAW have long acted as free agents, often angering other unions in the AFL-CIO, the federation to which they belong with more than 60 other unions. The Teamsters often side with Republicans on environmental issues and sometimes break with the federation and openly curry favor with the Republican Party. During the last election, as the AFL-CIO worked to elect Al Gore, Teamsters President James Hoffa attended the Republican National Convention.
But last week, despite protests from some of its unions loyal to the environmental movement, the AFL-CIO sided with the Teamsters on the drilling issue. Wittmann and others said the AFL-CIO's support, although it came late, could signal that the group is more likely to follow the Teamsters and try to work with congressional Republicans whom it has ignored in the past.
Many union members have met with moderate Republicans lately, Wittmann said. "My understanding is that they've developed better relations with them," he said, but he added that it does not mean those Republicans can look forward to labor support in the next election. "My sense is that labor is going to look at their own self-interests first and maybe the Democratic party is playing more of a second fiddle than they did in the past."
An AFL-CIO official, who requested anonymity, said it was unusual for the federation to take a stand on an issue when its members were deeply divided, as in the case of drilling in Alaska. But the official said the AFL-CIO decided years ago at a convention to support drilling in Alaska, with certain restrictions, and the Teamsters were able to persuade the AFL-CIO leadership to speak out. "What we faced was a very passionate group," the official said.
Some in Congress were surprised by how effectively labor was able to persuade Democrats to abandon environmentalists and cross party lines.
"Labor's campaign was very persuasive for many of the Democrats that the party had counted on for support and didn't get," said Alyson Heyrend, press secretary for Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), who voted against drilling.
But Jeff Faux, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, said there will be few instances in the near future when the interests of labor and Republicans jibe as well as they did this week.
He and others also doubt that labor will have as much success on these issues in the Democratic-controlled Senate as it did in the House, especially on the issue of drilling in Alaska, which the Senate Democratic leaders oppose.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company