Bush, Hoffa and Labor

Robert Novak
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Posted: Aug 25, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- When the International Brotherhood of Teamsters endorsed Democrat Richard Gephardt Aug. 9, did that mean years of courtship by Republicans were in vain? President Bush's political operatives don't think so. Nor does Teamsters President James P. Hoffa's inner circle.

No realist could imagine the Teamsters Union not endorsing Rep. Gephardt, who attended law school with Hoffa and has gone down the line for the union's full agenda. Bush political adviser Karl Rove is above all realistic, and he has been playing the Teamsters card as a future prospect in the event Gephardt loses the nomination. Both the Bush and Hoffa camps think at least neutrality and perhaps even a Bush endorsement is possible if Gephardt is not nominated.

The AFL-CIO's failure at its recent Chicago meeting to endorse Gephardt as the clearly most pro-union candidate betrays political disarray in the labor movement. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's regime is compared within labor to the ineffectiveness of predecessor George Meany's closing years. Inability to maintain a common front diminishes chances of keeping George W. Bush from a second term.

Bush and organized labor look like oil and water. One Teamsters agent says talking to his assigned contact at the White House is like facing a television set with the sound turned off. From inside the union come complaints that Bush's team has lost a golden opportunity. Contacts between the White House and Teamsters headquarters on Capitol Hill have become less frequent.

Not everybody inside the Teamsters favors the Hoffa-Bush detente. The Republican president and the union leader clash on key Teamsters issues of NAFTA, fast track trade agreements and Mexican long-distance trucking. Their joint effort to drill in the Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) failed. Nor have the Teamsters gotten what they want most: to end the U.S. government's monitoring of the giant union under a judicial consent decree.

The story has circulated through Teamsters ranks of how weeks ago Hoffa mentioned the consent decree to Bush, and the president replied: "I thought we took care of it." But this issue is in the hands of James B. Comey Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and even the leader of the free world would interfere with the legal process at his own peril.

Actually, negotiations with Comey to end the consent decree are in progress. Hoffa, too, is a realist and not unhappy over the progress. The big questions for him are whether Gephardt wins the Democratic nomination and what role labor plays in the picture. The AFL-CIO outlook has not been pretty.

The obstacles still confronting Gephardt's efforts to get the two-thirds union support needed for an AFL-CIO endorsement have been two bitterly feuding labor barons: Gerald McIntee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Andrew Stern of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). McIntee backs Sen. John Kerry, and Stern leans toward Howard Dean.

Gephardt strategists still have hopes for the SEIU, as well as the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). However, the UAW's Ron Gettelfinger is much less political than his predecessors. The UFCW's Doug Dority is closely tied to John Sweeney and, therefore, reluctant to give a quick endorsement.

According to Gephardt campaign sources, Sweeney personally asked the congressman not to press labor to support him. Gephardt was at a loss of how to answer. Union backing is essential if he is to win the Iowa caucuses and escape instant early elimination.

At the Chicago meeting, Gephardt faced not only Sweeney's neutrality but a campaign against him by Dean's presidential campaign. Working the meeting for the former Vermont governor was Bob Mullenkamp, who had been an aide to former Teamsters president Ron Carey and is detested by the Hoffa regime. His wife is Karen Ackerman, whose position as AFL-CIO political director is being challenged as a conflict of interest.

When Sweeney replaced Lane Kirkland in 1995, his intent was to make organized labor an engine for the Democrats. After eight years of failure, the labor movement faces the possibility of Hoffa's Teamsters benevolently neutral toward or even in support of the Republican president.