Under the Microscope

An aggressive audit of labor unions is only one front in Republicans’ multi-pronged attack.

David Moberg

If union leaders are feeling a little paranoid about Bush’s reelection, maybe it’s because they really are being persecuted. Republicans have both ideological and strategic reasons for an offensive against labor. Attacking unions pleases both Bush’s corporate friends and the movement’s conservatives, and harasses the strongest grassroots political operation opposing the Republican right. 

There’s been a strategy,” says former Democratic Rep. David Bonior, now chairman of American Rights at Work. It’s not a conspiracy. They’re very open. [Key conservative Republican strategist] Grover Norquist says they want to get rid of unions, to break the labor movement.”

But the rights of all workers, not just union members and their organizations, are in jeopardy. Since Bush took office, the Labor Department has significantly reduced staff for enforcing employer violations of laws on labor standards (such as child labor, the minimum wage and overtime), occupational safety, and rights to organize — laws that are important for everyone employed in America. 

Not that increasing the staff would help much if the Labor Department’s treatment of Wal-Mart is the standard. The Labor Department recently fined Wal-Mart, a company with $285 billion in annual sales, a paltry $135,540 — or less than $6,000 per violation — for breaking child labor laws. What’s more, the department promised that its inspectors would give the company advance notice of future investigations. 

Of course, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao may figure that there’s no need to beef up enforcement if the laws are getting weaker. Republicans plan to follow up Bush’s success last year in curtailing overtime protection with legislation that would make both overtime payments and the 40-hour week optional for employers.

But while protection of children and of worker health is being neglected, the Office of Labor-Management Standards, which investigates and audits labor unions, is thriving. This year 48 new positions and a 15 percent budget increase were granted to the office, and since Bush has been in office they have benefited from 94 new positions and a 60 percent overall increase in the budget. Last year the Labor Department began imposing extraordinarily detailed financial reporting requirements for unions and related institutions, like credit unions. Although the AFL-CIO is still pursuing a legal challenge to the rules, the new requirements — which far exceed those placed on corporations — have already eaten up dues that could have been spent on providing members with services. In addition, the reports expose details about union strategies that could be helpful to employers and political opponents.

The real motivation was to saddle unions with expensive and time-consuming requirements to harass them and to provide the kind of ammunition that a Right to Work Committee researcher or Republican staffer would find very useful, but union members would find not useful at all,” says AFL-CIO General Counsel Deborah Greenfield. I don’t think it’s an accident that the head of the agency within the Department of Labor who came up with the rule, Don Todd, was head of research for the Republican National Committee.”

While unions are harassed more systematically, there have been complaints that the NAACP and at least 60 tax-exempt groups have been investigated by the Internal Revenue Service because of their political activities — though the Treasury Department inspector general recently found no wrongdoing. And the Los Angeles Times reported on February 19 that Sen. James Inhofe (R‑Okla.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, demanded tax and financial records from two organizations of state and local government environmental officials who had criticized Bush’s Clear Skies legislation.

Of course, for workers, the threat of expensive union reporting requirements pales in comparison to Bush initiatives to privatize Social Security and make the federal tax system even more regressive. Also, Bush’s proposed Medicaid cuts hit two groups of vulnerable workers: not only low-income individual aid recipients, including many employees of companies like Wal-Mart, but also many thousands of workers in nursing homes and hospitals whose pay ultimately comes from Medicaid. 

In addition, the federal government is attacking the right of hundreds of thousands of Homeland Security and Defense Department workers to unionize, and Republican governors in Indiana and Missouri are curtailing workers’ collective bargaining rights (see The Midwest Union Rollback,” March 14). The right is renewing its efforts to pass state and federal right-to-work laws that prohibit requiring employees in a unionized workplace to pay dues to unions. What’s more, conservative Republicans in Arizona, California, Georgia, South Carolina and Oklahoma are also pushing restrictions on union political spending. 

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is trying to shift public employees’ pensions from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan similar to a 401(k). Beyond jeopardizing public employees’ retirement, it’s a calculated attack on workers’ power through pension funds, like CalPERS, that push for corporate reform.

Bush’s NLRB

But perhaps the biggest assault on workers will be coming from the agency entrusted to promote collective bargaining, the National Labor Relations Board. After Bush was able to make his appointments to the NLRB — including its chairman, Robert Battista, management attorney for the union-busting Detroit newspapers in the 90s — the board began issuing a string of anti-union rulings. They’re not just failing to keep up with the times, but moving in the wrong direction,” says Fred Feinstein, NLRB general counsel in the Clinton years. He argues that the Bush NLRB, more than past Republican boards, has adopted the viewpoint of the ardently anti-union National Right-to-Work Committee.

Jonathan Hiatt and Craig Becker, respectively general counsel and associate general counsel for the AFL-CIO, recently wrote, The members of the board appointed by President Bush appear to be headed toward the most radical non-legislative contraction of employee rights in the agency’s history.” While restricting the rights of even non-union workers to seek help from co-workers to protect their rights at work, the Bush board has overruled or restricted the rights to form a union of many workers whose jobs are typical of the new, flexible economy, such as graduate teaching assistants, handicapped workers, artists’ models and temporary employees. 

The Bush board may also soon resolve a dispute about the definition of supervisors.” This is a critical question because supervisors are not eligible to join a union. Feinstein fears that the board will define supervisory positions in such an expansive way that 90 percent of nurses working in a nursing home could be prevented from unionizing. Meanwhile, with no clear definition, the board threw out a union election victory because a worker the board deemed a supervisor had argued for unionization. 

Of course, having supervisors argue against a union — or far worse — is standard procedure. For example, in several recent cases where the employer threatened to close a factory if workers voted for the union, fired pro-union workers, offered bribes or selectively locked out pro-union workers, the board either found no violation by the employer or else imposed no special remedies. In one case, the employer did not provide the union the requisite full list of employees before the election, but the board said it was close enough and refused to call a new election. Adding insult to injury, the decision came seven years after the original attempt to organize.

An even bigger threat looms ahead. Increasingly, unions organize, as they did many years ago, by getting employers to recognize the union when a third party verifies that a majority of workers have signed union cards — a practice known as card check.” The board has now signaled that it may make such recognition illegal or at least permit union decertification elections immediately, rather than after at least one year under current rules.

In other cases, the board appears determined to narrow the scope of agreements that unions and management can reach before majority worker support is established. In February a regional NLRB director challenged an agreement between the Steelworkers and a manufacturing investment company to establish management neutrality during an organizing drive. Hiatt and Becker warn that if the board decides against neutrality agreements and majority card recognition, it may place union representation effectively beyond the reach of most American workers.”

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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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