Republicans Try to Make Up With Labor

Posted April 2, 2003 at 6:15pm

Several big names in the U.S. labor movement, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Teamsters President James Hoffa, will sit down this morning with a group of House Republicans to try to begin repairing a rocky relationship that has only grown worse over the past several months.

Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), who arranged today’s planned gathering, and two dozen House Republicans are also planning to send a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao in the near future, urging her to reject a proposal to impose new disclosure requirements on political activity by labor unions.

The letter to Chao could go out as early as next week, and a number of high-profile Republicans, including Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), Science Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, have already signed onto it.

Quinn and as many as 10 other House GOP lawmakers are slated to attend this morning’s breakfast at the Rayburn House Office Building. Hoffa and Sweeney will be joined by Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Among others sitting in for the Republicans will be Quinn and GOP Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).

“This is the first meeting of 2003,” said Quinn, who pointed out that he and a group of labor-friendly Republicans have held regular meetings with Sweeney and other top labor officials during the last few Congresses.

“It’s an informal get-together where they talk about important things in the session, we talk about important things in the session, what to look out for … . We rarely talk about elections.”

Quinn, though, admitted that “it is a sensitive time” in the relationship between organized labor and the GOP. There have been several incidents in recent months that have damaged the already tenuous ties between the two sides, and Hoffa has on several occasions publicly stated his unhappiness with the Bush administration.

Hoffa, who has been wooed heavily by President Bush over the past two years, was infuriated by an early February fundraising letter sent out by the National Right to Work Foundation under the signature of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). The letter accused “big labor bosses” of using the war on terrorism and the Iraq conflict to recruit new members. In his own letter to DeLay, Hoffa said, “This anti-union screed not only insults the 1.4 million members of this union, it offends me personally.”

DeLay quickly disavowed responsibility for the fundraising appeal and sent an apology to Hoffa.

But just weeks later, during an appearance before an AFL-CIO gathering in Florida, Chao roiled the conference of labor chiefs by linking the demand for fuller disclosure of union political spending with what she said were her ongoing concerns about corruption. Hoffa, whose union has drawn no small portion of federal scrutiny over the years, was among those who reacted angrily to Chao’s statement.

The Labor Department has already proposed new disclosure rules, known collectively as LM-2 requirements after the form that unions use to itemize their political activities, and the official comment period on the rulemaking closed March 27.

Hoffa and other labor leaders have a long list of other grievances against Republicans, including the decision to overturn a controversial ergonomics rule backed by unions and the recent push for additional tax cuts, which union officials claim are unfairly skewed toward the rich.

“It’s been productive at times, but it is also being complicated by the ideological drive of the Republican leadership,” said Kathy Roeder, the AFL-CIO’s spokeswoman, of the relationship between labor and the GOP, and she pointed to the DeLay letter as an example.

Mike Mathis, the Teamsters’ top Congressional lobbyist, offered a similarly divided assessment. He indicated that Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), for one, has been “very good” about trying to develop his party’s relationship with the Teamsters, but that the growing trust has been mitigated by DeLay’s efforts to undermine the unions.

“That’s the side of the party that makes us think that maybe this isn’t completely evolving to where it should be,” Mathis said, citing the DeLay letter.

Mathis also suggested that House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has developed into something of a reliable ally. He cited an early March event, hosted jointly by Blunt and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), that honored the Teamsters and parcel delivery giant UPS.

Hastert made an appearance at the March gathering, Mathis noted.