The New York Times

Bush Is Moving to Reduce Labor's Political Coffers


February 16, 2001




LOS ANGELES, Feb. 15 — The administration has told union leaders that President Bush will soon issue an executive order effectively reducing the amount of money that goes to organized labor's political campaign coffers, union officials said today.


The officials, concluding a meeting of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. executive council here, said the order, long sought by many Republicans, was one of four opposed by unions that administration officials had told them the president was planning to issue.


Another of the four will reverse a Clinton administration policy that has often given unionized construction companies priority on federally financed projects.


The order affecting labor's campaign war chests will require federal contractors to post a notice telling workers they have a right not to pay that part of union fees used for political activities.


That right was established in a 1988 Supreme Court ruling, and the fight over notification of it has been heated, with many Republican politicians arguing that such a notice is the only way a large number of workers will learn about it.


Union leaders voiced immediate consternation today.


"It's very in-your-face," said Denise Mitchell, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s communications director. "This shows they're intending to send a clear signal to unions that they have no intention of respecting their work or contribution."


Stuart Roy, a Labor Department spokesman in Washington, declined to comment tonight. Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman who handles labor issues, said, "I can't help you."


The Labor Department, Ms. Mitchell said, told Gerald Shea, a senior A.F.L.-C.I.O. official, about the planned executive orders today, just a day after Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao promised the federation's executive council that she would listen to union leaders' views and convey them to the White House before major decisions were made.


Ms. Mitchell said that Labor Department officials had told union leaders that they had asked the White House to delay the executive orders so that the department could first hear the unions' views, but that officials there had rejected any postponement.


The administration's move will restore two orders that President Bush's father issued as president but that the Clinton administration revoked.


In one of those two, the new president would make it easier for workers employed by a federal contractor to withhold part of the fees paid to the union representing their workplace. That move seeks to enforce a 1988 Supreme Court ruling, Communications Workers of America v. Beck, that guarantees a right not to pay any union dues that go to political activities. Workers who choose to belong to the union must pay their full dues; workers who decide not to belong pay a fee typically equivalent to the dues. Only by choosing not to join the union can a worker invoke the right under the court's ruling to withhold the part of the fee that would go to political activity.


Many Republicans have pushed for such an executive order because it will reduce contributions to union campaign coffers, and for the same reason many Democrats have opposed it.


As for labor's position, Ms. Mitchell said: "People certainly have Beck rights. But this is obviously intended to be an indirect comment on unions' role, when there is no posting of people's rights to join a union."


Restoring another order that his father once issued, Mr. Bush will bar a type of agreement, known as a project labor agreement and employed at the discretion of the individual states, requiring that contractors in many federally financed projects be unionized.


A third order to be issued by the president will dissolve the National Partnership Council, a Clinton-era effort in which government managers and unions representing federal workers sought to resolve their differences.


The fourth order, revoking another Clinton administration policy, will eliminate job protections for employees of contractors at federal buildings when the contract is awarded to another company.


The order cutting into union campaign coffers follows the huge role that organized labor played in Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign. Tens of thousands of union members made phone calls and distributed fliers, help that was pivotal for Mr. Gore in large swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.


Unions are forbidden by law to donate money from their treasuries — including dues or fees from workers — directly to candidates. Such money can be used for political purposes only in get-out-the-vote drives, issue advertising and so forth.


Like corporations, however, many unions set up political action committees and ask their members to donate. This money can go directly to a candidate's campaign.


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