WASHINGTON -- This is a happy Labor Day for Richard Trumka, second-ranking official of the AFL-CIO. Not only is he a high-profile supporter of Al Gore for president who keeps his job as the labor organization's secretary-treasurer even though he has invoked the Fifth Amendment in violation of AFL-CIO rules. He also has been freed for now from exposure in a lawsuit planned by the Teamsters union.
According to Teamsters officials, U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White's office in New York City has restrained their union from going to court. The union seeks damages in the 1996 corrupt deal involving the Democratic National Committee and the AFL-CIO that produced the since voided re-election of Ron Carey as Teamsters president. The government lawyers claim that a private lawsuit would undermine the Justice Department's criminal investigation, but their probe has languished for years.
Labor backing is essential to Vice President Gore's campaign for president, and he has ardently sought it. He began with a handicap: hostility from industrial unions because of his views on international trade, fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine. But Gore has compensated by proposing new powers for labor leaders like Rich Trumka while simultaneously forgiving their transgressions.
All that the vice president promises union leaders is veiled by the euphemistic language of the candidate's "America's Working Families" agenda. In proposing "a more level playing field between management and worker during organizing drives," Gore is actually opposing management's power to demand secret ballots to determine whether workers really want union representation. "Protecting the rights of working families to participate in the political process" actually means eliminating the rights of workers to challenge political use of their union dues.
Such promises are appreciated by the AFL-CIO, but what helps the labor barons most is
the handling of the 1996 Teamsters election scandal. Gore has joined AFL-CIO president John Sweeney in ignoring Trumka's resort to the Fifth Amendment when asked by the FBI whether he approved an illegal $150,000 diversion of AFL-CIO funds. That was part of a clandestine money swap in 1996 involving the Clinton-Gore campaign and Carey's Teamster re-election effort.
Trumka emerged from seclusion during this year's Democratic primary season to campaign for Gore, and was an honored speaker at the Democratic National Convention. However, he was embarrassed during the convention when ABC's "Nightline" reported he was under FBI investigation (with the network showing Trumka rudely turning aside a reporter's questions).
Where does this investigation stand four years after the crime? Incredibly, three defendants remain unsentenced three years after pleading guilty. There are suspicions by Teamsters officials that Mary Jo White is waiting until after the election.
Her immediate impact has been to keep Teamsters president James P. Hoffa from going to court seeking $9 million in damages from ex-president Carey and his collaborators in the scam that embezzled $650,000 from the Teamsters (with $350,000 kicked back to promote Carey's re-election). Curiously, Trumka is not named in that suit, but his connection in the scandal -- obscured by Justice Department secrecy -- would become public knowledge in any civil suit.
Without saying a critical word about Trumka, Gore has won nearly unanimous backing from AFL-CIO member unions. A late holdout was the United Auto Workers (UAW), miffed by Gore's pro-free trade and anti-automobile positions. Its endorsement came after federal authorities launched an investigation of allegations that the union forced General Motors to hire unqualified friends and relatives in return for ending a strike in 1997.
The United Mine Workers (UMW) still has not endorsed Gore, whose environmental ardor inveighs against the mining and burning of coal. Following his return from the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, UMW president Cecil Roberts issued this statement: "We need to hear from Vice President Gore that there is a future for coal miners in the nation's energy policy."
At this writing, Hoffa's Teamsters are divided over whether to back Gore. Many officials see grim prospects for the union in a Gore administration if there is no endorsement. But there are others in the giant union who cannot forgive or forget the events of 1996 and deeply resent the celebrity won and protection granted Rich Trumka on this Labor Day.