Politics & Policy

Not Your Father’s Labor Union

Labor unions today are more Michael Moore than George Meany.

Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, is author, with Daniel Gray, of the new book Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics. Chavez recently took some questions about unions and the Left from NRO editor Kathryn Jean Lopez.

National Review Online: What’s the “betrayal”?

LINDA CHAVEZ: Most union members think their dues–which amount to an average $600 per year, allowing unions to take in some $17 billion each year–go to providing better representation at the bargaining table. But most unions today now spend substantially more of their members’ money on politics and other non-contract-related activities than they do on bread and butter issues. Worse, most members have no say how their money is being spent and many have no idea that their dues are being diverted to far-Left causes that they would never support–everything from abortion rights to opposition to the war in Iraq.

NRO:The ties between the Democratic party and the labor unions are such that if it were the GOP & Halliburton we were talking about, there could easily be big-budget documentary exposing it all (and unlike a recent mockumentary, it would even be true!).

CHAVEZ: The mainstream media virtually ignores the corrupt relationship between unions and the Democratic party. Even though many unions illegally fund Democratic candidates’ efforts by putting union-paid staff into their campaigns or organizing get-out-the-vote efforts that target the general voting population, not just union members (which is permitted)–all of it paid for by union dues–the press rarely looks into these campaign funding violations. Imagine what would happen if a corporation did the same thing with its corporate dollars. There would be congressional investigations, front-page stories in the New York Times, and someone would probably end up in jail. But unions do this sort of thing all the time. I saw it with my own eyes when I worked for more than a decade at the American Federation of Teachers.

NRO:You make that point in the opening of your new book, of course. But is it an exaggeration for effect? Or is it really that bad, and deep?

CHAVEZ: Perhaps the press ignores this story because they don’t understand the intricacies of campaign-finance laws that permit unions to engage in activities denied to corporations–such as operating phone banks in support of candidates out of union headquarters, so long as “volunteers” only call union households. But the fact is, unions routinely stretch the rules, or outright violate them, and few watchdog groups seem interested. And we’re talking big money here. Unions will spend an estimated $800 million out of their union treasuries this election–not counting the additional $100 million or more in PAC contributions, which are voluntary–to defeat President Bush.

NRO:Is it legal for a union to take member dues and give it to John Kerry?

CHAVEZ: No, unions can’t give dues money directly to Kerry, but they can–quite legally–pay the salaries of union officials who they assign to work in the Kerry campaign (or any federal candidate’s for that matter). They can also print up brochures, set up and man phone banks, organize registration and get-out-the-vote drives, and a host of similar activities. The caveat is that all these activities are supposed to be aimed only at union households. But with no one watching, unions’ routines flout the rules. When I worked at the American Federation of Teachers in the 1970s and early ’80s, before I joined the Reagan administration, I was asked to print extra campaign literature and distribute it to candidates. We printed an extra 100,000 brochures for Teddy Kennedy when he was running against incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and delivered them to Kennedy’s headquarters. This type of activity continues to go on all the time, according to the letters I’ve received from union members since my book came out.

NRO: Americans love unions, don’t they? It’s the American way, etc. Does the of union politics resonate with the blue-collar hard workers at O’Flaherty’s down the block?

CHAVEZ: This is not your father’s labor movement of hard hats and assembly line workers. Today almost half of union members work for some level of government. Barely eight percent of workers in the private sector belong to unions. And the social and legislative agenda unions push these days must have former AFL-CIO president George Meany turning in his grave. The labor movement used to be strongly pro-American, pro-defense, and very conservative on social issues. Today’s union bosses have more in common with Michael Moore than George Meany.

NRO: Who’s Daniel Gray?

CHAVEZ: Dan Gray is a long-time conservative activist who was at one time the director of communication for the National Right to Work Committee. He currently works for Campaign Direct, a direct-mail company in Virginia.

NRO: Conservatives are quick–and rightfully so–to denounce abortion-clinic violence. Meanwhile, terrorism is an actual bargaining tool for a segment of Big Labor. How big a problem is union terrorism? Has there been any clear denunciation from prominent Democrats of labor violence?

CHAVEZ: Labor violence isn’t just the stuff of movies like On the Waterfront. Unfortunately it goes on all too frequently today, in part because unions believe they have immunity from prosecution when they engage in violent acts as part of a legitimate contract dispute. As difficult as it is to believe, the Supreme Court actually interpreted the Hobbs Act, which was aimed at union corruption and violence, from being used to prosecute unions engaging in such actions. The 1973 Enmons decision said that unions couldn’t be prosecuted for violent strike activities–the case involved union activists firing high-powered rifles at company transformers and blowing up a substation–so long as they took place during a strike and were intended to achieve otherwise “legitimate union objectives,” namely higher pay and benefits.

NRO: Why aren’t campaign-finance-reformer types obsessed with union flouting of their rules?

CHAVEZ: Some of my best information on union spending came from the Center for Responsive Politics, but they are an exception among the so-called watchdog groups, which seem far more interested in corporate misdeeds than anything labor unions might be doing. It reminds me of the old radical saying: “no enemies on the Left.”

NRO:You used to work at a union. Is this all worse today than in your day?

CHAVEZ: It is much worse today. Since John Sweeney became AFL-CIO president in the mid-’90s. He is an avowed socialist–a member of the Democratic Socialist of America–and believe politics is the future of the labor movement. He would like to create a European-style Labor party–and he has. It’s called the Democratic party.

NRO: The NEA had their convention last month. How are they leaving children behind?

CHAVEZ: The NEA has fought every major education reform over the last 30 years. Their only concern is building the union’s political strength. A brief glance through their yearly resolutions demonstrates that they are more interested in supporting left-wing causes than in improving education.

NRO: How did John Sweeney save Bill Clinton’s you know what?

CHAVEZ: During the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Harold Ickes was tasked with gathering together a group of Democrat honchos to meet with President Clinton to urge him to step aside for the sake of the Party and the country. When Ickes approached Sweeney to ask him to be part of the group, Sweeney basically talked him out of moving forward, urging a wait-and-see attitude. When the initial anger dissipated, no one brought up the suggestion again


NRO: Are there union friends of Bill he forgot to write about in My Life?

CHAVEZ: In my chapter “An Affair to Remember” I talk about Clinton’s unsavory ties to a mobbed-up union president, Arthur A. Coia, head of LIUNA (Laborers International Union of North America). The two had contact more than 120 times in Clinton’s first term, all the while Coia was about to be indicted under the RICO statutes for his alleged ties to organized crime. But even though the Justice Department was ready to serve Coia with a RICO complaint, Clinton kept having him into the Oval Office and Coia to travel with him to Rhodes Island and Haiti. Ultimately, the relationship proved very useful to both men. Coia’s union gave the Dems $4.8 million in contributions and Clinton gave Coia a get-out-of-jail-free card. Although the DoJ ultimately went after Coia’s union, he was left in place for several more years. Only when he got too greedy and tried to bilk Rhodes Island (his home state) out of taxes due, was he removed as head of LIUNA after pleading guilty to income tax evasion. But not to worry. In typical union fashion, Coia got to keep his $250,000 annual salary–for life.

NRO: Would a President Kerry be beholden to labor bosses?

CHAVEZ: Although Kerry wasn’t the union’s first choice (or its second), they are so committed to defeating Bush that they will pull out all the stops. The AFL-CIO has committed an additional $44 million to that end; the SEIU, one of the nation’s biggest unions, will spend more than $60 million; and just one local, 1199 from New York City, has committed to spend $35 million and send in 1000 campaign workers. So if there is a President Kerry, he’ll know who got him there.

NRO: I’m a union member and don’t want my money going to elect John Kerry, or to support abortion, or to oppose welfare reform, etc. What can I do?

CHAVEZ: You can petition your union to return that portion of your dues that goes to anything other than contract negotiations and administration under the Beck and Abood decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. But don’t hold your breath on getting anything more than pennies back. Without better accounting required from unions–like the independent audits required of public corporations–and more transparency so union members know how their dues are spent, it’s hard to prove that the union is lying when they say almost nothing goes to politics. We need better laws to enforce transparency and accountability.

NRO: I know unions are corrupt. Why should I read your book?

CHAVEZ: Because you are unwittingly supporting union political activities, whether you like it or not. Since unions are tax-exempt organizations, and since union dues are tax deductible for union members, all taxpayers end up subsidizing their activities. Even though union membership is declining, their political power is growing. You will learn how union pension funds could be used to harm the U.S. economy and why taxes are so high in many cities and states with large union memberships. More importantly, you’ll learn what you can do to help end this cycle of corruption.


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