WASHINGTON -- Despite an unintentional slip by his secretary of Labor, George W. Bush made progress Labor Day in splitting unions from an iron alliance with the Democratic Party. His biggest target is the Teamsters, and he moved closer to advocating what the big union wants most: freedom from government control.
Teamsters officials were astounded by Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao's comment over the weekend that reported "continuous violence" in the Teamsters might delay the end of 12 years of federal supervision. Not only did Chao quickly make amends, but President Bush himself privately indicated he would like to abolish immediately the Independent Review Board (IRB) monitoring the Teamsters.
Bush has been trying to break organized labor's monolith that opposed him in the 2000 election. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has been written off by the White House as a hostile left-wing ideologue. Member unions, however, can be split off on issues not supported by Sweeney and the Democrats, such as oil exploration and nuclear power.
Last month, two union events quietly were put on Bush's Labor Day schedule: the Carpenters in Green Bay, Wis., and the Teamsters in Detroit. Carpenters President Doug McCarron, who in March took his union out of the AFL-CIO, flew to Green Bay with Bush on Air Force One.
Secretary Chao, also traveling with the president, in an interview with CNN broadcast two days earlier praised McCarron and Teamsters President James P. Hoffa as "enlightened labor leaders ... who know their main responsibility is to provide jobs for their rank and file." But when I asked her about relieving the Teamsters from the federal consent decree whose burden has cost the union $10 million, she replied: "There appears to be still some lingering reports about continuous violence ... We are very open to working with the Teamsters to ensure that these incidents do not occur again and that there's not a pattern."
The IRB comes under the Justice Department, not Labor, and monitors are looking for corruption and inroads of organized crime rather than violence. When the secretary arrived at the union's picnic in Detroit, Teamster officials descended on Chao to ask what in the world she was talking about. She confessed that she was confused and telephoned Hoffa in California to make clear she intended no hostility.
The president added this to his original text for his Detroit speech: "He (Hoffa) is running a good union -- and in an aboveboard way." Bush is described by White House sources as uncomfortable with government tutelage of a labor union, as he made clear in a private comment to an aide on Air Force One while returning to Washington. "I don't know why we just don't end it," he said. He was told the consent decree was enforced by U.S. District Judge Mary Jo White in Manhattan. "Isn't she a (Clinton administration) holdover?" asked Bush. That's a question Teamster officials have been asking.
White unsuccessfully tried to block Joseph diGenova, the former Republican U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, as the Teamsters new representative on the three-member IRB. Former Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, the government's new member of the board, is trusted by the Teamsters. But the union was disappointed when Civiletti retained William Webster, former CIA and FBI director, as the IRB's third member.
In the current U.S. News and World Report, Webster is quoted as saying "it remains to be seen" whether "we're at the point" where "the country's largest union is going to be allowed to run its own shop." Fear that Hoffa will bring back mobsters that flourished under his father was answered by him on NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday: "We've made sure that organized crime never comes back in the Teamsters union ... Those people killed my father. They're never coming back."
Sweeney, worried about Bush's labor offensive, on Labor Day offered an olive branch for Doug McCarron to return to the AFL-CIO. Actually, McCarron has asked Hoffa to join him in a new labor federation. They conceivably could be joined by the United Mine Workers, whose president, Cecil Roberts, was at the White House last week saying his members are interested in jobs and guns and helped Bush carry West Virginia. That sounds like Big Labor splitting.