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Labor's Day 

Why the AFL-CIO's John Ryan is every mayoral candidate's best friend.

Ryan has raised labor's presence at City Hall. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Ryan has raised labor's presence at City Hall.

If there was one day that John Ryan knew he had made his mark on Cleveland politics, it was May 23. That morning, Ryan heard that Mayor Michael White had called a press conference to make an announcement. Like a lot of people, he figured White was about to do what had been expected for months: announce his pursuit of a fourth term.

Ryan, the executive secretary of the Cleveland AFL-CIO, had more than a passing interest in the mayor's plans. Two weeks before, he sat with White at the Sheet Metal Workers Hall stage to celebrate the passage of Issue 14, the $380 million school bond issue and levy. In a rare moment, the two men had found themselves allies, and it fueled speculation that organized labor might throw its weight behind White in his upcoming race.

It was an improbable scenario, since Ryan had repeatedly cautioned against interpreting labor's endorsement of Issue 14 as support for White. He soon found how little this would matter. After arriving at his office that morning, Ryan got a call. It was White, offering a heads-up about his announcement. He would not be running for reelection.

As shocked as he was, Ryan knew what was coming next. He was about to become very popular. By the end of the day, five potential candidates for mayor had called him, all hoping to gauge their standing within the ranks of organized labor.

It was only the beginning. By the middle of June, nearly everyone who's been bandied about as a candidate -- and several who haven't -- had either called or met with Ryan.

There is little mystery to their interest. The AFL-CIO includes more than 100,000 members in Greater Cleveland -- 45,000 of whom live in the city (a number that includes retirees). It's a chunk of votes that can have an impact on all but the most lopsided contests. But those numbers are only part of the reason Ryan was on the speed dial of every would-be mayor in town.

Over the last several years, the AFL has reestablished its mojo by becoming one of the best organized and most sophisticated political groups in the county, delivering votes with muscle that few operations can match. With Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones's announcement that she will stay in Washington, the fight for White's job is wide open. Union members now find themselves occupying coveted territory: They're about to have a huge say in who runs the city.

"They are making themselves king- and queenmakers," says Ward 13 Councilman Joe Cimperman, among those considering Cleveland's top job. "They will have a profound impact."

Echoes prominent corporate labor lawyer Robert Duvin: "These things don't last forever, but right now they've positioned themselves much better than they've been positioned for the last 10 years."

Much of the credit for labor's clout goes to Ryan. Elected as the federation's executive secretary in a contentious bout four years ago, Ryan is among a new generation of labor leaders who've taken the reins of unions across the country. More Jimmy Carter than Jimmy Hoffa, Ryan believes labor must be the flag-bearer for all workplace issues, not just those that pertain to unionists. "I never viewed it as we should only fight for people with a union card in their pocket," he says.

Soft-spoken, mustached, and bespectacled, Ryan comes off like a prototypical suburban dad, which is exactly what he is. But this low-key style has helped forge ties to many pols. "He's established his power structure pretty much by one person at a time," says Cimperman. "He builds relationships with folks, so that when he calls you, it's not just a fly-by-night thing."

If there ever was such a thing as a labor leader prodigy, it is Ryan. His mother and father were both union activists, and one of his oldest memories was not having to eat salad as a kid because of Cesar Chavez's fights as head of the United Farm Workers. "To me, that was just a natural blend of your faith and your job and other people's jobs. So that was my orientation the whole time I was union president."

Ryan joined the Communications Workers of America while working part-time as a teenager in clerical jobs at Ohio Bell. At age 21, he became president of his local. He stayed for nine years, during which he also helped form Jobs for Justice, a coalition of labor, community, and religious groups. In November 1996, after working as the president of a union council for six years, Ryan ran for executive secretary of the AFL-CIO.

Mirroring the change in the AFL-CIO's international leadership several years before, Ryan and his slate of victorious candidates focused on organizing new members and ratcheting up political clout. The AFL created a "mobilization institute" to teach members how to stage protests and attract media attention. It expanded political education committees around the county. It had members monitor county commission and city council meetings. It helped train union members to run for precinct committee posts and other offices. It issued policy papers and briefed politicians on the federation's views.

The effort hasn't gone unnoticed. "Now John Ryan or somebody from one of the AFL-CIO member organizations is at city council every Monday night," says Cimperman. "They show up all the time. And even when they're not pushing for an issue, they're just kind of there, letting you know where they're coming from . . . They have become everyday folks down here at City Hall. It's changed, because if John Ryan calls you, you better call him back."

That shift in focus has reaped considerable dividends. In November 1997, organized labor played a leading role in defeating Issue 2, a statewide referendum that would have changed Ohio's workers' compensation program. Four months later, it helped Jimmy Dimora come from behind to win the Democratic primary for Cuyahoga County Commissioner against longtime state lawmaker Patrick A. Sweeney. And last year, the union helped deliver a victory for Supreme Court Justice Alice Robie Resnick in one of the nastiest campaigns in state history.

Most impressive was the AFL-CIO's involvement in Issue 14. During the campaign, every union member living in Cleveland was contacted five times -- by phone, at work, through the mail, or door to door. Service Employees International members made phone calls to union members and parents of school kids. Other unions had volunteers drive sound trucks through neighborhoods and register voters. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union distributed fliers in each grocery bag at Dave's supermarkets.

"I have to believe [that] their endorsement, the enthusiastic work they did, and the leadership of John Ryan, both publicly and privately, had a lot to do with the win, and particularly with the margin of victory," says Arnold Pinkney, White's point man on Issue 14, which passed with 60 percent of the vote.

With its part in the school bond victory, the AFL-CIO has established itself as one of the most effective interest groups in the state, says Cuyahoga County Republican Party Chairman Jim Trakas. Even Duvin, who says organized labor often gets media credit for power it doesn't have, admits Ryan has significantly upped the union's political juice. "The focus continues to be visibility and politics, and in that area, John, I think it's fair to say, is on a roll . . . I think he's now a bigger force to be reckoned with because of the school experience."

The organization is trying to capitalize on that momentum, hoping to expand its reach beyond simply endorsing candidates and getting members to vote. Over the summer, it will conduct a voter registration drive throughout the city. It will also survey members to see what issues they'd like the next mayor to address.

"Our view needs to be that not only should we have a say in who gets elected the next mayor, but what issues they address and speak about when they run for mayor," says Ryan. "Even in the unlikely scenario that we endorse someone that didn't win, we will have a say."

More by Andrew Putz

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