Woo or harass labor

Posted: Sep 02, 2002 12:00 AM
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 Republicans.