Labor's Clinton problem

Posted: May 29, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- More than two months ago, the Building Trades Council of the AFL-CIO voted to cut off contributions to the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The reason was failure to win assurance that union labor will be used to build the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, Ark. Behind that dispute, however, lie deeper strains between Democrats and blue-collar labor. The building trades labor leaders are stunned by their inability to negotiate a project labor agreement (PLA) locking in union workers for the library of a president who, in office, fought hard for PLAs on federal construction. Bill Clinton himself has sat down with union chiefs, deploying his considerable charm to convince his friends in labor to be reasonable. To no avail, at least so far. The Building Trades Council has been in turmoil ever since Douglass McCarron took his Carpenters Union out of the AFL-CIO 14 months ago --rejecting the dominance of service and government workers unions. The Carpenters and other unions, led by James P. Hoffa's Teamsters, have sided with the Bush administration against fellow unionists on the question of Alaska oil drilling. President Bush and his political team are trying hard to widen this breach. In this climate, the Clinton library did an imitation of the Associated Builders and Contractors in fighting any PLA. The union leaders were not happy when the library sounded the old management argument of just not enough union members in Arkansas. What infuriated labor was the presence on the library's legal team of a bitter enemy: Robert Miller, a tough Denver lawyer who battled toe-to-toe with unions over construction of the new Denver airport. Labor cannot de-link the Clinton library from the Democratic Party. Terrence McAuliffe, who was handpicked as the party's national chairman by his very good friends the Clintons, is the clear connection. While raising money for the party, McAuliffe solicits a few dollars for the library. So, during the week of April 17, when the building trades were holding their annual convention in Washington, it was decided to cut off all DNC contributions. Bill Clinton was in town, and met at the Hay Adams Hotel with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Building Trades Council President Edward Sullivan. Clinton assured them that this matter would be settled soon. After all, Clinton's longtime faithful lieutenant, Bruce Lindsey, is the library's lead negotiator. Still, no PLA was accepted, and the flow of union money did not resume. Skip Rutherford, the Clinton library president, told this column that he did not "know anything about cutting off contributions," but added he expected agreement with labor in a few days. However, two weeks ago -- when building trades leader Sullivan confirmed to me the funds freeze -- he also predicted a settlement momentarily. The delay only adds to tension inside the labor movement, where Hoffa is rising as a threat to Sweeney. Last week, Hoffa voted no (along with Thomas Buffenbarger of the Machinists) when Sweeney won approval of an increased monthly assessment of 4 cents per union member for political action. Keeping faith with his promise that the Teamsters no longer would be an ATM for the Democrats, Hoffa declared at the AFL-CIO meeting in Manhattan that "we want a pro-worker majority" -- not a Democratic (or a Republican) majority. Hoffa is no Republican, but he is making clear that he is ending the rigid Democratic line of his predecessor at the Teamsters, Ron Carey. Hoffa is backing incumbent Republican governers George Pataki in New York, Bob Taft in Ohio and Jeb Bush in Florida. Maryland's Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's campaign team was outraged when Hoffa participated in a recent event with her Republican opponent for governor, Rep. Robert Ehrlich. It is inconceivable that Clinton's friends building his library will continue indefinitely to bite the labor hand that has fed them. But the restiveness of blue-collar labor has been provoked. Its quiet overture to President Bush: Show your good faith by not disturbing the Davis-Bacon Act, which in effect requires union pay on government contracts, and you will build a lasting bridge to the building trades. George W. Bush has given up a lot more in hopes of being repaid with a lot less.