If you would strike at the king, said Machiavelli, kill him. The underlying
logic here applies to democracies as well as monarchies. If you put your all into
bringing down a presidential candidate and come up short, expect him to come at
you--hard. And that pretty much describes organized labor's current predicament
with George W. Bush.
Though the percentage of unionized workers in the American labor force remains
at a post-Depression low, the political profile of organized labor has risen
dramatically over the past decade--particularly since the election of John
Sweeney as AFL-CIO president in 1995. After a disappointing attempt to pick off
freshman Republican House members with vast advertising in 1996, labor shifted to
a mixture of on-the-ground organizing, paid media, and aggressive voter-education
efforts among union households. Labor pulled out several swing states for Al Gore
in the 2000 election. This approach played to labor's inherent strengths in a way
that the 1996 "air war" strategy never did. The techniques that the unions have
subsequently refined--or actually recovered from an earlier era of labor
activism--have arguably made the labor movement into the most dynamic and
effective progressive force in American politics today. As one high-profile
anti-union activist begrudgingly puts it, "They're left-wingers who know what
Paradoxically, that effectiveness has become a source of extreme
vulnerability. With Democrats out of power in the White House and on Capitol
Hill, organized labor faces an avowedly hostile new administration. President
Bush's corporate friends want to roll back the labor policy agenda, and
Republican strategists are keen to cut the institutional strength of unions
themselves. The close ties between labor and the Democrats are hardly a secret.
The AFL-CIO may have won a small victory in helping derail the nomination of
Linda Chavez to run the Labor Department, but the scope of that success was more
apparent than real. Chavez, who has subsequently announced plans to form an
anti-union watchdog group, clearly had more personally invested in going after
unions than the eventual nominee, Elaine Chao. But as the rapid repeal of the new
ergonomic-safety standards for workers demonstrated, Chao--whatever her personal
views--seems likely to function as little more than a transmission belt, carrying
out directives from superiors in the White House.
High-priority items for the right include passage of the Team Act (vetoed by
Bill Clinton in 1996), a bill that would allow employers to sponsor
worker-manager partnerships tantamount to company unions (outlawed ever since the
1935 Wagner Act). A national "paycheck protection" bill--to hobble unions'
ability to use dues for political and educational purposes--will probably be
introduced as well, though that legislation may be used more as a cudgel to kill
campaign finance reform. Even before moving on these major legislative goals, the
new administration has already struck down a series of federal policies congenial
On February 17, President Bush issued four executive orders: Two of these
rescinded Clinton administration orders that provided a measure of job security
for service workers employed by federal contractors and set up labor-management
councils in unionized federal workplaces. Bush also reinstated an executive
order from his father's administration mandating that federal contractors post
notices of workers' right to a return of union fees that would go for political
education. The fourth order banned the use of "project labor
agreements"--overarching contracts that can require all contractors and
subcontractors in federally funded building projects to follow union standards.
Such agreements undercut the economic advantage of hiring nonunion
subcontractors. Rules that bar the federal government from doing business with
contractors who habitually violate health, safety, and environmental regulations
could not be blocked with a new executive order, but they were "suspended"--a
step of questionable legality.
The Clinton administration, in a major breakthrough for the labor movement,
also issued an executive order barring the government from contracting with
companies that have hired permanent replacements for strikers. This was done
because a conservative Congress would not pass legislation banning replacement of
striking workers as an unfair labor practice. This Clinton order is also
vulnerable. Bush, moreover, by enjoining a mechanics' strike at Northwest
Airlines, has signaled that he will use his executive power to delay strikes for
up to 90 days. These orders, though used sparingly, tend to be wielded more
intensely by Republican presidents, and they take the wind out of strikes.
The Bush administration will probably also take a host of less conspicuous
steps to cut back on regulations and programs that collectively undergird both
workers' rights and unions' institutional power. One obvious target will be the
recently revitalized union organizing efforts. Effective organizing can easily be
derailed if the Wagner Act's protection of pro-union workers against management
retaliation is not seriously enforced. In the Ronald Reagan years, workers'
rights were protected with what might be called intense laxity. Much of the
enforcement authority rests with the National Labor Relations Board. President
Bush will likely be able to fill three of the five seats on the board and thus
drastically alter the playing field on which union organizers must operate. He
has signaled that he'll be generous in granting waivers that allow states more
easily to privatize services that currently must be provided by public employees.
He may also cut support for job-training programs in which unions serve as the
Such measures would generate less public attention than the executive orders
and high-profile legislative fights but, all together, could be even more
devastating. Political appointees in the Labor Department have discretion to act
or not to act in countless small instances. They can let the faucet run freely,
as it did during much of the Clinton administration, or close it tighter.
Most of the employees of the Labor Department are engaged in protection of
workers' rights. They enforce worker safety, wage-and-hours regulations, pension
rights, child labor, and so on. While these protections affect all workers,
they also strengthen organized labor by giving unions additional bargaining
leverage over management lapses. Business prefers to see all of these weakened.
It's important to differentiate the policy plums favored by the
administration's business allies from those eyed by Republican political
strategists. The two categories are related. A stronger labor movement is a
stronger political force. The ideologues and party strategists around the new
administration look beyond simply whittling away at unions' prerogatives and
pro-union policies. They want to go after unions directly--handicapping, if not
neutralizing, them politically. In part this means subjecting unions to
intensified legal scrutiny. When I asked conservative activist Grover Norquist
what he thought the new administration's labor policy should be, he said,
"Prosecute the hell out of labor union corruption."
And that's only part of the program. At the top of the antilabor agenda are
efforts to stop unions from spending member dues on anything but collective
bargaining, narrowly defined. In the political sphere, Norquist himself has
played a key role in getting paycheck-protection initiatives on the state
ballots. Such laws would force unions to get members' consent to use monies for
any political purpose. Labor rightly has treated these as life-and-death battles,
and it has been defeated in several high-profile cases--most notably in
California's Proposition 226 in 1998.
Nonunion workers under contracts negotiated through collective bargaining are
nonetheless required to pay "agency fees" (in lieu of the dues members would
pay). But, in the 1988 case
Communications Workers of America et al. v.
Beck, the Supreme Court ruled that these nonunion workers were entitled to
withhold whatever portion of their fees went for purposes other than collective
bargaining. Late in his presidency, under fierce lobbying from conservative
groups (even a prominent anti-union activist described it to me as a "nasty
grass-roots effort"), the first President Bush signed an executive order
mandating that all federal contractors post notices informing workers of their
rights under the Beck decision. President Clinton rescinded the mandate,
but the second President Bush quickly reinstated his father's order.
By themselves the Beck notices won't cause a significant drain on union
coffers. But conservative activists want new executive orders and regulations to
give Beck sharper teeth. The most important of these would dramatically
tighten the standards for the annual financial reports that unions large and
small must file with the Labor Department. "More disclosure," one prominent
anti-union activist told me. "That's the best way we see to get the Beck
The Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 stipulates that unions must file reports on
where they spend their money, but many of the specifics regarding just what must
be reported are left to Labor Department regulations. Antilabor activists would
like to ramp up the level of detail required in these reports--preferably
modeling them on the disclosure filings that corporations must make to the
Securities and Exchange Commission and having them follow, as closely as
possible, the categories outlined in Beck. Union officials say such
requirements would prove burdensome--especially to the roughly 95 percent of
union locals that have no full-time professional staff. But the real goal here is
to strengthen Beck. Anti-union activists plan to use these detailed
disclosures in organized, well-funded efforts to get nonunion workers to withhold
fees and union members to resign from their unions. "First, you have to let
people know what the facts are," says Norquist. "Then the interested parties--the
gun rights people, the pro-life people--can start saying, 'I'm tired of sending
you my money.'"
Of course, even without allies in control of the White House or Congress,
unions are not entirely defenseless. The biggest changes, like the Team Act and
paycheck protection, call for legislation. Even where the executive branch can
move unilaterally, it often takes much more than a stroke of the president's pen.
Changing the reporting regulations for financial disclosure forms under the
Landrum-Griffin Act would still require hearings and periods of public comment.
And such efforts might at least be delayed, if not thwarted, by challenges made
by unions in the courts.
Yet if the Bush administration's various moves against organized labor are
beset by bureaucratic hurdles or stalled temporarily for political reasons, the
conservative strategists who are pressing the assault can still proceed in the
knowledge of an important truth: If they don't inflict major damage on unions,
they achieve half their goals simply by making the attempt. The more time,
money, and political clout unions put into defending their own institutional
strength and integrity, the less will be left for organizing workers, advocating
public policies that support working families, or backing politicians who do the
Moreover, simply going after unions shifts the trajectory of progressive
politics; it forces Democrats to spend time and political capital defending
unions rather than having unions spend time defending Democrats. Whether this
produces weakened unions, more militant unions, or unions that are simply more
dependent on the Democratic Party will help determine whether Democrats regain
congressional majorities in 2002 and whether organized labor's much-heralded
resurgence will be nipped in the bud.