WASHINGTON -- One of the least pleasant duties of a Republican administration's secretary of Labor is appearing before barons of organized labor at their annual meeting in Florida. Performing that mission last week, Elaine Chao reacted to particularly discourteous treatment by counterattacking. The result threatened a key White House campaign tactic.
For more than two years, President Bush's political operatives have reached out to the labor movement's more conservative elements -- mainly Teamsters and the building trade unions. Chao, skeptical of this effort's value, has tried to get organized labor to obey a 44-year-old law requiring financial disclosure. That provoked a closed-door confrontation Wednesday between her and the AFL-CIO Executive Council, which the unions' propaganda machine immediately made public.
Teamsters operatives were on the telephone Wednesday night to White House political director Ken Mehlman, complaining that the secretary of Labor had ruined everything. Teamsters President James P. Hoffa was described as especially upset. Presidential aides emphasized that Chao was acting on her own and that the White House was not pleased. More emphatically than the president's aides, she views Big Labor as a political organization wedded to Democrats and plagued by corruption.
Ironically, in view of Chao's outlook, this year's two-week long AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting was held at a symbol of what's wrong with organized labor: the beachfront Diplomat Resort and Spa in Hollywood, Fla. Chao's Labor Department has filed a civil suit against the Plumbers Union, alleging imprudent use of its pension fund by investing $100 million to buy and renovate the Diplomat.
Earlier in the meeting, Democratic presidential candidates were welcomed as potential saviors. In contrast, according to one witness, the secretary of Labor was "treated shabbily" in a "highly unpleasant" atmosphere. Even Jim Hoffa, normally the most amiable of men, was described as being in "a foul mood." Chao, a slight, happy-looking woman of 49, had to face some 65 labor leaders around a horseshoe desk and 75 more staffers behind them -- mostly unsmiling middle-aged and elderly men led by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.
Chao delivered an upbeat, pro-worker speech that was everything unions could expect from a Republican, but that was not what interested them. Chao is trying to enforce for the first time the provision of the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act aimed against labor union corruption and requiring unions to file LM-2 financial disclosure forms with the government. As recently as last year, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa was able to frustrate Chao's efforts, but that is not possible with Republicans back in control of the Senate.
After her speech, Chao was besieged by a barrage of questions dealing with the LM-2. Especially confrontational was Machinists President Thomas Buffenbarger. In response, Chao opened a notebook and read from it the details of criminal corruption charges against Machinists officials. Union bosses, who revel in rudeness, complained bitterly that the demure secretary of Labor was impolite. A pro-labor version of the incident was promptly passed to reporters waiting outside at the Diplomat.
Not everybody was unhappy. One union president (identified by labor sources as Frank Hanley of the Operating Engineers) actually praised Chao, and was duly criticized by his colleagues. But Hoffa and Sweeney, divided on so much, were allied in deploring Chao's audacity.
Teamsters officials grumbled that Chao's indiscretion undermined years of conciliation with the GOP. Republicans who had been engaged in that effort mourned that chances to win Hoffa's endorsement of George W. Bush in 2004 had just vanished. Instead of sending the secretary to Florida to chide labor, one Teamster official told me, the White House should have dispatched aides to brief conservative union leaders on the Iraq war as a counterweight to the movement's Sweeney-led dominant left wing.
Yet, Chao and her associates at the Labor Department may be more realistic than the Bush team. She is reported to feel that the Carpenters (no longer in the AFL-CIO) constitute the only union that will give the Republicans close to an even break politically, and these Carpenters endorsed every incumbent Senate Democrat seeking re-election last year. Given how little the Republicans get from Big Labor, surrendering the right to criticize corruption in their ranks would be a high price.