|ONLINE VERSION||APRIL 2001|
Living in a Land of Retribution
The talk has begun. In our newspapers, on our nightly television news, in the halls of Congress and around water coolers across the country - the conversation has turned to one word - retribution.
Retribution for what? For mobilizing and allowing our voices to be heard during the 2000 elections? Perhaps.
While we hope that the anti-worker, pro-business climate that seems to have permeated Washington is not the direct result of our ability to mobilize and support candidates who stand up for working families, actions taken in the past few weeks by our new President and the Republican Congress should give us pause.
Let's start with President Bush's decision to issue four blatantly anti-worker executive orders in February. These orders were all strongly supported by his big corporate contributors and by anti- labor ideologues. And they all undermine basic worker rights.
The first executive order requires government contractors to post notices stating that employees cannot be required to become union members in order to retain their jobs and that those who do not join the union may object to paying the portion of agency fees that are not related to collective bargaining. Contractors that fail to comply can be barred from bidding on or keeping their government contracts.
Sound familiar? It should. This order is identical to one issued by the first President Bush during his failed 1992 reelection campaign to shore up right-wing support.
The second executive order forbids agencies from requiring bidders in federal construction projects to agree to enter into agreements with a labor organization for the work. This action effectively bars the government from using what are called "project labor agreements."
This executive order is not only anti-union, it defies good economic sense. Project labor agreements have proven successful in promoting efficiency in the economy. They guarantee skilled workers and the orderly resolution of any labor disputes to prevent strikes and lock-outs. This new executive order undermines sensible policy on how the government purchases services, reduces construction options and will ultimately increase government construction costs.
The third executive order rescinds a 1994 executive order requiring building service contractors in federal buildings that have taken over work previously performed by another contractor to offer continued employment in the same jobs to qualified employees of the displaced contractors. Simply put, this order can deprive service employees on federal worksites of job security when the federal government changes contractors. It essentially strips these workers of important job protections.
The fourth executive order rescinds another order issued by former President Clinton which required federal agencies to cooperate with their employees' representatives over such topics as staffing levels and work techniques. In one stroke of the pen, President Bush has abolished the labor-management relations systems that serve the federal government and hundreds of federal workers as well. In effect, he has told his own employees that they are unrespected and unimportant.
If President Bush can do this to his own employees, what's in store for the rest of working Americans? Is this a sign of more retribution to come? Let's look further...
When not issuing anti-union executive orders, President Bush has been barnstorming the country using the Presidential bully pulpit to tout his tax cut. But who are the biggest winners in the tax cut debate? You guessed it. The nation's wealthiest Americans.
According to the Citizens for Tax Justice, 45 percent of the total benefit of the tax cut would go to the top 1 percent, about $54,480 a year versus an average of $47 for a family in the bottom 20 percent of earners. Not surprisingly, estimates show that George W. and Laura Bush would see $100,000 a year in tax savings under his plan.
As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney recently stated, "Any working family who regularly balances their budget and plans for the future will tell you the Bush tax plan is irresponsible and profoundly unfair."
So, we have four mean-spirited executive orders, one pro-wealthy tax cut proposal, and, then, the Republican Congress killed ergonomic protections for American workers. Even though some 1.6 million repetitive stress injuries are reported a year and workplace safety experts believe hundreds of thousands more injuries go unreported because workers fear reprisal, the Republican Congress turned their backs to the facts and rewarded their Big Business friends for their multimillion dollar investments in the 2000 congressional campaign. As Senator Edward M. Kennedy said after the vote, "This is special interest legislation. This is a political payoff. Make no mistake about it."
And just when we think we had witnessed enough anti-worker action in a mere few weeks, President Bush threatens government intervention in the collective bargaining process in the airline industry. To paraphrase an old slogan of one of the nation's airlines, "Is this anyway to run a country? We don't think so."
While we hope that President Bush's comments to "take the necessary steps to prevent airline strikes from happening this year," were intended to tell the parties to work hard at the bargaining table, one could also be led to the conclusion that he was tilting his hand to the airline industry. For railroad workers this is important as they must now brace for what seems like a predictably hostile and pro-management White House reaction should any of the freight or Amtrak negotiations reach impasse and spill over into the political arena.
As The New York Times pointed out in a recent editorial, "...having a Republican president say so far in advance that he will act to prevent strikes threatens to dissuade the airlines from negotiating in good faith. They may feel inclined to wait and rely on a pro-business White House and Congress."
Are we living in a land of retribution? There are certainly signs that the handwriting may be on the wall. The issuing of the anti-worker executive orders in February came just 48 hours after Bush's new Labor Secretary Elaine Chao pledged to work with the AFL-CIO leadership. It also breeched an understanding with the White House Chief of Staff to have discussions in advance with labor on issues whether we were in agreement or not. Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that recent actions go directly against President Bush's own pledge to be "everybody's President" and to "change the tone" in Washington. Yes, the tone has changed. And we sure don't like what we are hearing.