For even casual observers of politics, the recent Teamsters endorsement of Dick Gephardt’s 2004 presidential bid comes as no big shock. Despite some concerns about electability, Gephardt’s longtime advocacy for union bosses has gained him their nearly uniform support, and the news was far from unexpected.
It seems that the only people in Washington surprised by the announcement work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
For the past two years, some of President Bush’s political strategists have been falling over themselves to court James Hoffa and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union hierarchy in an attempt to win their support.
Their plan was to give the Teamsters a few special favors which, along with Bush’s popularity among rank-and-file union members, would translate into an endorsement in 2004, locking up the Teamsters political money and muscle.
To curry favor with Hoffa, the Bush administration gave him significant influence over the selection of nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Hoffa was able to veto a group of proposed nominees to the NLRB, which lead to the White House nominating a compromise package that was less dedicated to protecting workers from union abuses.
Last year, Business Week magazine revealed White House strategists pressured Congress not to act on proposed legislation that would embarrass union officials. Following suit, Republican lawmakers refused to hold hearings on a National Right to Work Act, which eliminates union officials’ ability to seize compulsory dues from workers.
In another sop, the White Hose inserted a discriminatory union-only project labor agreement (PLA) into the Alaska energy legislation. By agreeing to the PLA the administration locked out non-union contractors from working on the Alaska project. This act betrayed Bush’s own principles, as the administration is in federal court defending an executive order banning PLAs on federal construction projects.
Last year, Bush aides even went so far as to secure Hoffa a high-profile seat in the presidential box at his inaugural state of the union speech.
So what did this strategy, and accompanying compromises, get the Bush administration? Nothing. In fact for every concession they made, the Teamsters seemed more determined to defeat and humiliate the president.
For example, last year union operatives went out of their way to unseat the president’s brother Jeb in the Florida gubernatorial election. In 2002, the Teamsters political spending against Republicans was not confined to Florida, across the country the Teamsters political-action committee spent $2.1 million to elect liberal Democrats to the U.S. Congress.
If that was not a clear enough sign the plan was failing, leaks from within the Teamsters headquarters revealed that former Hoffa campaign chief and Teamsters union national field director Todd Thompson has been tasked with tripling contributions to the Teamsters political-action committee, using the new funds for the explicit goal of defeating GOP candidates in 2004.
The Teamsters endorsement of Gephardt should come as a sobering slap in the face to anyone who believed President Bush would gain meaningful support from the Teamsters, or any other union, by making policy concessions.
In looking at the White House’s strategy one has to ask what exactly were they expecting from the Teamsters and how high a price were they willing to pay? Even if the Teamsters did endorse Bush, did anyone really expect they would spend millions in compulsory union dues to elect Bush and other Republicans?
How far was the White House willing to go for a Teamsters endorsement? In trying to get the Steelworkers union’s support — they also endorsed Dick Gephardt — the Bush administration sold out its support for free trade and imposed new steel tariffs. Would the White House have been willing to give up the tax cuts, or other important legislation, if it meant getting Teamsters money and support?
If the Bush political team is serious about reaching out to working men and women, they should start by addressing the problems faced by millions of workers who labor under compulsory unionism. These workers are forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment, and are often harassed, intimidated, or threatened by union bosses when they stand up their rights.
The best way to help these workers is by passing a National Right to Work Act, which would eliminate compulsory unionism, and make supporting a union voluntary. This issue is a winner for the White House, with polls showing over 80 percent of Americans favor giving workers a choice about whether they want to join or support a labor union.
Although fighting for the right-to-work principle will not make President Bush popular with union bosses, like Jimmy Hoffa, it will get him closer to what he really wants, a second term.
— Mark Mix is president of the National Right to Work Committee.