Class Warfare, Bush-Style

While the nation's attention is riveted by the inexorable march to war against Iraq, the Bush administration has quietly opened a new front in the relentless, largely covert war it has been waging here at home against U.S. workers and their labor unions.

In December the Labor Department issued new union reporting regulations, which would require itemization of every expense greater than $2,000 spent on organizing and strike services, lobbying or political activities. This is an administrative nightmare that would cost unions many millions. The administration indicated that it would ask the Republican Congress to pass civil penalties for unions that don't meet reporting deadlines. George W. Bush's budget, unveiled in early February, cut money for enforcing workplace health and safety laws, and for investigating corporate violations of minimum wage, Family and Medical Leave mandates, and child-labor laws. But Bush dramatically increased the budget for auditing and investigating labor unions.

An assistant labor secretary expressed concern for "financial transparence" in labor unions. But as AFL-CIO General Counsel John Hiatt noted, "We're talking about an administration that opposes regulation on air quality, water quality, on forests, on food safety, on repetitive-stress injuries in the workplace ... but when it comes to unions, requiring them to itemize every expense, that doesn't seem to trouble this administration at all." Clearly the White House is ramping up an effort to ensnare unions in legal aggravations in time for the 2004 election campaign.

This latest maneuver is but a skirmish in an offensive that Bush has waged directly against trade unions -- and against workers -- since he came to office. It is a war of indirection and disinformation, of ambush and frontal assault, all designed to weaken unions, reduce their membership, sap their resources and energy, and limit their ability to oppose the administration and its corporate allies.

Bush showed his hand immediately upon taking office. In one of his first acts, he killed the Clinton regulation that required federal agencies to consider companies' records of compliance with the law -- including their adherence to labor laws -- in awarding federal contracts. Bush then issued four anti-union, anti-worker executive orders. He abolished labor-management partnerships in federal agencies aimed at improving productivity and working conditions, barred automatic union-recognition agreements on federal construction projects and required contractors to inform employees that they needn't join a union without telling them of their right to join one (an order recently overturned by a federal judge for violating the National Labor Relations Act). He followed this by preventing mechanics from striking at Northwest Airlines and United Airlines. As Ronald Reagan did when he busted the air traffic controllers, Bush was serving notice to employers that it was open season on labor.

In the wake of September 11, Bush launched a frontal attack on public-sector unions. The administration stalled passage of the homeland-security bill, demanding the right to strip the 170,000 workers in the new department of both their collective-bargaining rights and civil-service protections. Even as the nation was still celebrating the heroics of unionized police, firefighters and rescue workers who gave their lives to save others on 9-11, the president was implying that unions posed a national-security risk in the new department. In the election campaign, the president impugned the patriotism of Democrats who opposed this indignity. When the president got his bill after the elections, the Transportation Security Administration issued orders denying collective-bargaining rights for the 56,000 newly federalized airport screeners.

Right after the November elections, Bush announced plans to accelerate the contracting out of federal work to private companies, putting the jobs of some 850,000 federal employees at risk. This invites anti-union, low-wage contractors to compete for what are now, in many cases, unionized jobs with decent pay and benefits. With the states in the worst fiscal crisis since the Depression, Bush's example will embolden governors to seek wholesale privatization (and de-unionization) of state and local work. In one of his first steps under the new initiative, Bush appointed a nine-member commission to reform the U.S. Postal Service, and included not one representative of any of the postal unions whose workers' jobs are at risk.

For the industrial unions, Bush's economic policies have been the weapons of mass destruction. U.S. manufacturing has been bleeding jobs in a world verging on global deflation. Yet Bush pushed for and won fast-track trade authority shorn of any protections for basic labor rights. Instead, he promised to support a "strengthened" International Labor Organization (ILO), but his budget essentially eliminates the International Labor Affairs Bureau, gutting U.S. support for the ILO's campaigns on child-labor and core-labor standards, including the right to organize and bargain collectively. In barely two years, Bush has already blocked more strikes than any president in memory, even threatening to use the Navy to replace 10,500 dockworkers if they went on strike last summer. Not surprisingly, when he pushed for $15 billion to bail out the airlines after 9-11, he opposed any assistance for the 100,000 workers that they laid off.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney calls this the "most anti-labor administration since Hoover." The White House has yet to meet with Sweeney, and instead seeks to sow division within labor, courting the Carpenter's Union after it walked out of the AFL-CIO and wooing Teamsters President James P. Hoffa. Yet that didn't stop the White House from knifing the Teamsters by authorizing nonunion Mexican truckers and uninspected Mexican trucks to traffic goods throughout the United States under NAFTA.

For Bush and his political guru, Karl Rove, labor is domestic enemy No. 1, the biggest single obstacle to their goal of forging a generation of conservative political dominance. In 2000 unions faced off against Bush, Rove and the National Rifle Association in battleground states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, and beat them big time. By 2002, Republicans had studied and copied union techniques for their own ground operations.

For Democrats and progressives, the stakes in this battle are much higher than the next election. No significant progressive reform is possible without a strong union movement. Unions gave us the weekend, the bumper stickers say. They also gave us shared prosperity and the great American middle class -- the embodiment of the American dream -- that is the source of this country's strength and pride. As unions have declined over the last three decades, inequality has grown, wages have stagnated, benefits such as pensions and health care have declined, and the minimum wage has lost ground.

Progressives far beyond the labor movement itself need to confront Bush's assault on unions. Defending workers' right to organize, to bargain collectively and to strike should be central civil-rights demands. Community groups, churches and elected officials should rally to organizing drives and challenge corporate and administration efforts to cripple unions. Progressive legislators must start to defend labor as tenaciously as the administration is attacking it. For the future direction of this country, the outcome of this Bush war may be more telling than the one in Iraq.