NEW YORK – Some labor unions traditionally hostile to Republican administrations have taken a new approach with the Bush administration in hopes of loosening oversight and increasing stature among policy makers in Washington.
In exchange, the White House appears to be giving groups like the Teamsters and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters more attention, further increasing the groups' influence.
For instance, members of the carpenters union, which has broken away from the heavily Democratic AFL-CIO, joined several Teamsters officials at President Bush's economic forum in Waco earlier this week.
Teamsters President James P. Hoffa is often seen accompanying Bush to events, and Bush has publicly said that more people in Washington are taking notice of the Teamster’s "above-the-board" procedures.
Observers say the whole relationship is based on mutual gain.
"I don’t think the Bush administration has compromised any of its core beliefs and principles in order to accommodate organized labor, but I do think they have been very conscious of looking for places where that cooperation is in their mutual interest," said David Denholm, president of the Public Service Research Foundation, a Washington-based watchdog group focused on union influence on public policy. "And where it was in their mutual interest, they reached out for that cooperation."
For instance, the Bush administration is currently enjoying support from some unions for his call to drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Teamsters have signed on to be citizen spies for the Justice Department's Operation TIPS program.
On the flip side, it’s no secret that Hoffa wants Bush to get rid of the Justice Department’s oversight of the Teamsters.
"It should give the Bush administration qualms about accepting Hoffa’s support knowing full well that what Hoffa wants is to get the government out of his business," said David Kendrick, director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project at the National Legal and Policy Center.
The government has been deep in union business for years. In 1986, President Reagan’s Commission on Organized Crime concluded that four unions were substantially controlled or influenced by organized crime and should be regularly reviewed by the government.
The Teamsters, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, International Longshoremen’s Association and the Laborers International Union of North America all were subject to the microscope. The Laborers International Union, however, escaped government oversight by agreeing to police themselves. The Teamsters did not.
Since 1959, the Labor Department has had monitoring functions over unions. It spends considerable energy monitoring union elections and making sure union groups are correctly reporting where their money goes.
Labor Department spokeswoman Kathleen Harrington said 30 percent of unions still don’t comply with financial reporting rules despite legal requirements.
There has been a "significant number of convictions for misuse of union members’ dues money," Harrington said.
And while Harrington said oversight is meant to benefit labor union members, oversight has been the ire of groups like the AFL-CIO who claim the Bush administration unfairly discriminates against unions in the favor of business employers.
"It’s a very different treatment, clearly," said Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO. "There’s not any even-handed treatment here."
Seminario said the Labor Department offers small business owners assistance to comply with volumes of regulations they should not be expected to know by heart, yet no aid is forthcoming to the unions.
She also maintained there is no record of "gross illegality" of union financial filings.
But Kendrick said union leaders don't want members to know what is happening at the highest echelon because workers won't like what they see.
"They really don’t want the members to know where they spend their money, because there’s no telling what kind of stuff is going to come out of the woodwork," said Kendrick.
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation filed charges against the Union Labor Life Insurance Company just last week for secretly contributing to labor unions through their top officials at the expense of lower-level union members and fee payers. One charge alleged that Ullico board members profited from the purchase and sale of Global Crossing stock of which rank and file workers could not take advantage.
"While union officials have been talking about corporate corruption at firms like Enron, they have been similarly exploiting rank-and-file workers," Stefan Gleason, vice president of the foundation, said in a statement.
Ullico had no comment.
Nonetheless, on a political level, Denholm said despite the heavily Democratic tilt among unions like the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and others, "there's a certain amount of pragmatism on both sides."
"I think it would be possible for them to find pragmatic reasons to cooperate," he said.