Losing streak continues
The pains of labor in Bush's time
by Eric Brazil
Sunday, February 2, 2003
San Francisco Chronicle
WHEN THE CHIEF OF the National Transportation Security
Administration declared recently that collective bargaining for 56,000
federal airport screeners is inappropriate, it was just the latest shot fired in
the Bush Administration's campaign to weaken organized labor in America.
The news has been dominated for months by the prospect of a
pre-emptive attack by the United States on Iraq but the administration,
moving more or less under the media radar, has relentlessly prosecuted a
political war on unions in a transparent effort to punish them for
endorsing and supporting Democratic candidates in the 2000 elections.
Not surprisingly, some of the administration's more blatant moves
have come wrapped in the American flag.
"Fighting terrorism demands a flexible workforce that can rapidly
respond to threats," said the Transportation Security Administration's
James Loy. That's not far from saying that being a member of a
union is unpatriotic or, at best, counterproductive when it comes to
matters of national security.
Loy's assertion is both unfair and disingenuous, and it would be
laughable were it not backed by the power of a president steeped in the
business ethic of Texas, a "right to work" state, where unionism
used to be - and in some quarters still is - equated with communism.
There's a convincing refutation of the administration's position right
now at San Francisco International Airport, where unionized screeners
continue at their jobs under a pilot project without the faintest flicker
of a security complaint.
As a practical matter, the SFO screeners are likely to be more
vigilant, not less, since unionizing, because they have more to protect
after winning contracts that brought them improved wages and working
conditions and which afforded them greater job security than in their
The move against airport screeners followed closely on the
president's victory in persuading a rather diffident Congress to give
him a free hand in hiring and firing about 170,000 federal workers in the
agencies that are being combined in the new Homeland Security Department,
effectively diminishing their collective bargaining rights and
civil service protections.
It seems as if the president is actually trying to pick a fight
with his own federal workforce.
On Nov. 14, the administration proposed rules that govern
contracting out of federal jobs to make it easier for the private sector
to bid on and take over the work historically performed by some 850,000
government employers, many of them represented by unions.
And in December, the Labor Department announced it intends to
impose tougher reporting and disclosure regulations on unions, requiring
them to itemize all $2,000-and-up expenditures for political activities,
lobbying, organizing and strike benefits.
Labor Department Assistant Secretary Victoria Lipnic said the new
regulations are being proposed to improve the "financial transparence"
of labor organizations. Oh?
That the administration should mount its high horse and demand
more transparency in union matters at a time when the American public is
still gagging in the smelly backwash and financial chicanery that
continues to ooze from an epidemic of crooked corporate greed borders on
"We're talking about an administration that opposes regulations
on air quality, water quality, on forests, on food safety, on repetitive
stress injuries in the workplace," says Jonathan Hiatt, the AFL-CIO's
general counsel, who calls the proposed regulations retaliatory and punitive.
"But when it comes to unions, requiring them to itemize every expense, that
doesn't seem to trouble this administration at all."
Organized labor, born in struggle, has always carried the battle
to organize and represent workers in collective bargaining with it.
Since 1981, when President Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers'
strike, it has all too often found the government as a principal
adversary. But in Reagan, a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, it
faced a man who had experienced and understood the good that unions
could do for working men and women, even though he eventually went over to
the other side. George W. Bush has no such background, no use for
unions and has demonstrated a blind spot when it comes to labor
that Reagan, for all his rock-ribbed conservatism, never had.
Some of the recent actions of the Bush administration make it
hard to escape the conclusion that the president is either going out of
his way to insult unions or is utterly insensitive to labor's legitimate
concerns. To mention just two, neither the commission charged with
studying parts of the U. S. Postal Service, which could cost the Postal
Workers Union hundreds of thousands of jobs, nor the national committee
on ergonomics, created to study the causes of workplace injuries and
methods for preventing them, include a single labor union member.
"I think he (Bush) means to do more harm to workers than previous
Republican presidents, including his father," said Art Pulaski,
secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation AFL-CIO. "He has
surrounded himself with ideologues who are steadily pushing an
In fact the Bush administration's track record over the past two
years has made it pretty clear no union efforts to make nice will
deflect it from its ideological agenda on labor. The National Labor Relations
Board, the ostensible protector of workers' right to organize - a shaky
ally even under Democratic presidents - -won't be much help either.
Union membership in America has declined steadily over the past
four decades. Now, with an enemy in the White House, organized labor
finds itself thrown back on its grassroots resources.
One successful self-reliant model for resisting further erosion
of labor's political position is found in this state, where the
California Labor Federation's Labor-Neighbor campaign helped retain
Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature, capture all
statewide offices and gain two Congressional seats in the 2000 elections.
"There was a reactionary wave across the country, and it lapped
at our mountains, but we held them back, and that was because of the
issue-based political work that we have done with our members,"
Pulaski said. It's bootstrap time for labor, he added, because "the
Democrats have no vision and no program, so it's up to us to come up
with a vision that gets people interested in politics."
Eric Brazil is a former Chronicle reporter.