Big Labor: So Out It's "Off the Radar Screen"

How irrelevant is organized labor in George W. Bush's Washington? Here's a clue: Last December, when AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney left a message congratulating Bush on winning the Presidency, Bush aides assumed the caller was Representative John E. Sweeney of upstate New York. When the union leader didn't get a return call, he seethed at the apparent snub for weeks. It wasn't until Bush's first Labor Secretary-designate, Linda Chavez, unraveled the mystery of the switched Sweeneys that Bush returned the labor leader's call. "This is how much off the radar screen the labor movement really is," Chavez notes now. "They have no way in at the White House."

And no way out of a political morass. After spending $83 million in a futile attempt to help the Democrats hold the White House and regain Congress, labor is in the penalty box. The first two months of the Bush Presidency have seen a series of executive orders and legislative blitzkriegs aimed at defanging unions. Unfortunately for Sweeney, there's more to come. Bush vows to short-circuit potential strikes against three airlines, in addition to using his power on Mar. 9 to block a threatened job action by Northwest Airlines Corp.'s mechanics.

"BALANCE." Next up: White House efforts to force unions to get members' permission before spending dues on political activities as part of any compromise on campaign-finance reform. Even more difficult will be stopping Bush from expanding free-trade agreements, an issue many pro-business New Democrats support. And labor is bracing for Bush to name a slew of pro-management types to National Labor Relations Board vacancies. "There's no sense in having power unless you use it, and the Bush people know how to use it," says Victor Kamber, a pro-labor Democratic consultant. "They're rewarding their friends and punishing their enemies."

White House officials deny any vendetta. Bush is simply restoring "balance" to labor-management relations, they say. To that end, he repealed four Clinton-era edicts, including one that allowed unions to divert nonunion workers' representation fees to political causes without their consent. Bush then teamed up with Hill Republicans to overturn workplace ergonomic rules that required employers to reduce repetitive-stress injuries. Another target: rules finalized late in the Clinton Administration that bar companies from getting federal contracts if they've violated labor laws.

Labor is incensed. "It's payoff time for the folks who put the $250 million into the Bush campaign," says AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal. "And it's an attempt to silence working families by taking unions out of the political equation."

Some of labor's setbacks are of its own doing. Before the shock of Al Gore's defeat had sunk in, Bush's labor team--headed by economic policy adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey, political guru Karl Rove, and domestic policy assistant John Bridgeland--moved swiftly to marginalize unions. "[Labor] severely underestimated George Bush, which is a mistake," says Dan Danner, chief lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business.

The AFL-CIO will try to woo moderate Republicans as it seeks to increase the minimum wage and create a Medicare prescription-drug benefit. Both promise to be uphill battles. And soon, Big Labor will have to decide whether to organize another crusade to reclaim Congress for the Democrats in 2002--or focus on its day job: organizing workers. Two reform-minded industry heavyweights are front-runners to head the Navy and the Air Force. Gordon R. England, executive vice-president at General Dynamics, leads the list for Navy Secretary, and James G. Roche, a top official at Northrop Grumman, is the leading candidate to head the Air Force. If England and Roche get the nod, it's likely that civilian leaders of the services will have more clout over the brass than in the Clinton

Administration. Lobbyists for high-tech companies are delighted that a top tech-savvy Hill staffer has nabbed an influential post in Vice-President Dick Cheney's office. Cesar V. Conda, a former aide to ex-Senator Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), has been named domestic policy adviser to the Veep. Conda helped his former boss--now President Bush's Energy Secretary--shepherd legislation that gave digital signatures the same legal status as the pen-and-ink variety. The debate over Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is intensifying. On Mar. 13, the Audubon Society launched a $150,000 TV ad campaign opposing Bush's plan to open the area to oil drilling. The ad, which features caribou and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, will be shown 200 times in the Washington (D.C.) area. The campaign coincides with efforts by Representative Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and 130 other lawmakers to push through a bill that would put ANWR off-limits.

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