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      Losing streak continues
      The pains of labor in Bush's time

      by Eric Brazil

Sunday, February 2, 2003
San Francisco Chronicle

      WHEN THE CHIEF OF the National Transportation Security Administration declared recently that collective bargaining for 56,000 federal airport screeners is inappropriate, it was just the latest shot fired in the Bush Administration's campaign to weaken organized labor in America.

      The news has been dominated for months by the prospect of a pre-emptive attack by the United States on Iraq but the administration, moving more or less under the media radar, has relentlessly prosecuted a political war on unions in a transparent effort to punish them for endorsing and supporting Democratic candidates in the 2000 elections.

      Not surprisingly, some of the administration's more blatant moves have come wrapped in the American flag.

      "Fighting terrorism demands a flexible workforce that can rapidly respond to threats," said the Transportation Security Administration's James Loy. That's not far from saying that being a member of a union is unpatriotic or, at best, counterproductive when it comes to matters of national security.

      Loy's assertion is both unfair and disingenuous, and it would be laughable were it not backed by the power of a president steeped in the business ethic of Texas, a "right to work" state, where unionism used to be - and in some quarters still is - equated with communism. There's a convincing refutation of the administration's position right now at San Francisco International Airport, where unionized screeners continue at their jobs under a pilot project without the faintest flicker of a security complaint.

      As a practical matter, the SFO screeners are likely to be more vigilant, not less, since unionizing, because they have more to protect after winning contracts that brought them improved wages and working conditions and which afforded them greater job security than in their nonunion past.

      The move against airport screeners followed closely on the president's victory in persuading a rather diffident Congress to give him a free hand in hiring and firing about 170,000 federal workers in the agencies that are being combined in the new Homeland Security Department, effectively diminishing their collective bargaining rights and civil service protections.

      It seems as if the president is actually trying to pick a fight with his own federal workforce.

      On Nov. 14, the administration proposed rules that govern contracting out of federal jobs to make it easier for the private sector to bid on and take over the work historically performed by some 850,000 government employers, many of them represented by unions.

      And in December, the Labor Department announced it intends to impose tougher reporting and disclosure regulations on unions, requiring them to itemize all $2,000-and-up expenditures for political activities, lobbying, organizing and strike benefits.

      Labor Department Assistant Secretary Victoria Lipnic said the new regulations are being proposed to improve the "financial transparence" of labor organizations. Oh?

      That the administration should mount its high horse and demand more transparency in union matters at a time when the American public is still gagging in the smelly backwash and financial chicanery that continues to ooze from an epidemic of crooked corporate greed borders on the obscene.

      "We're talking about an administration that opposes regulations on air quality, water quality, on forests, on food safety, on repetitive stress injuries in the workplace," says Jonathan Hiatt, the AFL-CIO's general counsel, who calls the proposed regulations retaliatory and punitive. "But when it comes to unions, requiring them to itemize every expense, that doesn't seem to trouble this administration at all."

      Organized labor, born in struggle, has always carried the battle to organize and represent workers in collective bargaining with it. Since 1981, when President Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers' strike, it has all too often found the government as a principal adversary. But in Reagan, a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, it faced a man who had experienced and understood the good that unions could do for working men and women, even though he eventually went over to the other side. George W. Bush has no such background, no use for unions and has demonstrated a blind spot when it comes to labor that Reagan, for all his rock-ribbed conservatism, never had.

      Some of the recent actions of the Bush administration make it hard to escape the conclusion that the president is either going out of his way to insult unions or is utterly insensitive to labor's legitimate concerns. To mention just two, neither the commission charged with studying parts of the U. S. Postal Service, which could cost the Postal Workers Union hundreds of thousands of jobs, nor the national committee on ergonomics, created to study the causes of workplace injuries and methods for preventing them, include a single labor union member.

      "I think he (Bush) means to do more harm to workers than previous Republican presidents, including his father," said Art Pulaski, secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation AFL-CIO. "He has surrounded himself with ideologues who are steadily pushing an anti-labor agenda."

      In fact the Bush administration's track record over the past two years has made it pretty clear no union efforts to make nice will deflect it from its ideological agenda on labor. The National Labor Relations Board, the ostensible protector of workers' right to organize - a shaky ally even under Democratic presidents - -won't be much help either.

      Union membership in America has declined steadily over the past four decades. Now, with an enemy in the White House, organized labor finds itself thrown back on its grassroots resources.

      One successful self-reliant model for resisting further erosion of labor's political position is found in this state, where the California Labor Federation's Labor-Neighbor campaign helped retain Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature, capture all statewide offices and gain two Congressional seats in the 2000 elections.

      "There was a reactionary wave across the country, and it lapped at our mountains, but we held them back, and that was because of the issue-based political work that we have done with our members," Pulaski said. It's bootstrap time for labor, he added, because "the Democrats have no vision and no program, so it's up to us to come up with a vision that gets people interested in politics."

      Eric Brazil is a former Chronicle reporter.

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