WASHINGTON -- Big Labor's chiefs had reason to worry Aug. 22
when a big-time union accountant copped a plea and agreed to cooperate with
federal prosecutors. While threatening further revelations of union
corruption, it energized efforts on Capitol Hill to require accurate
financial reporting by organized labor. Oddly, however, cheers at the White
House were muted.
Rep. Charlie Norwood, the tough small-town dentist from Georgia,
has been pressing hard for new LM-2 forms mandating reluctant unions to
reveal how much they are paying for the good life and for political
activity. He has quiet but energetic support from Labor Secretary Elaine
Chao. But, Republicans in Congress complained, President Bush's political
operatives have delayed promulgating the new forms.
Here lies a strategic choice. Should Republicans woo blue-collar
labor unions, unhappy with the dominance in the labor movement of service
and government employees? Or should they accept Dr. Norwood's diagnosis and
harass union bosses by revealing their corrupt lifestyles to rank-and-file
members? The decision at the White House so far seems to be: wine and dine
labor leaders rather than put them on the grill.
The Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers Union is the
kind of old-fashioned union that is supposed to be ready for a Republican
embrace. Federal court proceedings in Washington Aug. 22, however, evoked
unhappy memories of the bad old days. Accountant Francis Massey pleaded
guilty to covering up $1.5 million or more of Iron Workers officials
spending union funds for food, drink and other assorted fun.
The fun included golf outings and dinners at Washington's Prime
Rib restaurant, an expensive K Street lobbyist hangout that apparently also
is popular in the labor movement. According to congressional sources,
Massey's proffer listed $99,000 in Prime Rib spending for one year by the
Iron Workers (compared with America's average yearly wage for hourly
employees of $31,500). Massey admitted covering up such spending by
disguising it as "educational and publicity expenses."
Massey was a partner for Thomas Havey, a Washington accounting
firm whose many labor clients include the AFL-CIO itself. Iron Workers
former president Jake West awaits trial in Washington, following guilty
pleas from six of the union's officials.
These developments cheer Charlie Norwood, who heads the House's
Workforce Protections Subcommittee. Fiercely opposed by unions and their
Democratic allies in Congress, he wants replacement of the current
ineffective LM-2 financial reporting forms (mandated by the 1959
Landrum-Griffin labor reform act). More accurate reporting, Norwood
believes, will reveal not only big spending at fancy steakhouses but also
unauthorized political expenditures. That could help real enforcement of the
Beck decision, which is supposed to permit rank-and-file union members to
protest the political use of their dues.
George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 for the Beck decision, and
Secretary Chao supports it. That runs counter to the Bush strategy of
sweet-talking labor, supervised by White House political director Ken
Mehlman. Labor Department and congressional sources blame Mehlman for
blocking the new LM-2.
While Mehlman declined to be quoted, one White House aide told
me that Mehlman actually favored financial reporting but was deeply involved
in trying to swing certain labor unions to the Republican side. He has
targeted President Douglas McCarron's Carpenters Union, which left the
AFL-CIO last year.
McCarron has been Bush's guest at the White House and was a
highly visible participant in the president's Waco economic summit. Among
labor leaders, only Teamsters President James P. Hoffa has gotten more
attention from the president.
At the same time, McCarron is very close to Sen. Edward M.
Kennedy, the Senate's Mr. Liberal, and has quietly contributed $1,125,000 in
Carpenters' soft money to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for
2002 -- double their contribution in the 2000 election cycle. McCarron does
not mince words that, as much as he likes Bush personally, he wants a
Democratic-controlled Senate. The Carpenters are contributing to a few
Republican House members but not in seriously contested districts.
To hard-bitten congressional staffers experienced in dealing
with labor, Mehlman is a 36-year-old graduate of Harvard law school who has
been taken in by the union politicians. These staffers see what happened
Aug. 22 in a District of Columbia courtroom as the best news for