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Unions See 'Hostility' in Bush Federal Jobs Plan

His privatization proposal is called offensive and the bidding process unfair.

November 16, 2002|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration's initiative to privatize thousands of federal jobs was widely viewed by labor leaders Friday as part of an aggressive campaign to weaken unions, a move they said has been emboldened by recent Democratic electoral losses.

"This is yet another indication of the administration's hostility toward labor, and an especially blatant one for government employees," said Bill Samuel, political director of the AFL-CIO.

The White House announced plans Thursday to put as many as 850,000 federal jobs out to competitive bid under rules that the largest government workers' union said clearly favored private contractors.

Combined with the administration's insistence on diluting civil service protections in the proposed Homeland Security Department and its intervention in the ongoing labor dispute at West Coast ports, the plan struck labor leaders as an indication of troubling things to come.

"The attacks on unions weren't so overt over the last two years," said Bruce Raynor, president of the garment workers union UNITE. "This is an act of war."

White House spokeswoman Clare Buchan said the administration had no anti-union agenda and was merely looking for ways to reduce government costs. She noted that union firms are free to compete for government contracts under the privatization plan. "The proposal is part of the president's management initiative, which is aimed at making government more effective and more cost-efficient for the American people," she said.

As far as the president's overall relationship with labor, Buchan said: "We will work with anyone who wants to work constructively and in a bipartisan way to advance the president's agenda."

The AFL-CIO, a national federation of unions that represents 13 million members, doesn't see things that way. On its Web site, it catalogs nearly 100 antilabor actions taken by the Bush administration -- from the repeal of ergonomics rules to tax cuts it claims unfairly benefit the wealthy. The federation has objected to scores of Bush appointees, including his first two picks for secretary of Labor and the Labor Department's top lawyer.

And then there is the personal. AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney has never met with President Bush -- a slight that federation spokeswoman Denise Mitchell calls "unprecedented" in the federation's history.

Sweeney, who campaigned strongly for Democratic nominee Al Gore throughout the presidential race, extended an olive branch to Bush by telephone the day the Supreme Court made him president, she said. Bush returned the call two weeks later. The two have not spoken since. Promises of follow-up meetings with senior White House advisors never materialized, she said.

"After six months," Mitchell said, "we just gave up."

Buchan, the White House spokeswoman, would not directly address Bush's relationship with Sweeney, but said: "There are many voices in organized labor. We've worked with labor unions and have very good relationships with a number of them."

She referred specifically to James P. Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and Douglas J. McCarron, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, both of whom have been actively courted by the administration in what many observers view as an attempt to split the labor movement.

McCarron broke away from the AFL-CIO last year and has been openly critical of Sweeney. While the Teamsters remain in the federation, Hoffa and Sweeney have had differences.

While the Teamsters have backed several Bush initiatives, including his bid to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, spokesman Bret Caldwell noted the union is often at odds with the administration.

"We certainly are aware that many of the decisions coming out of the White House are not labor-friendly," he said. "However, we believe that eliminating the dialogue could only make it worse."

The plan that sparked Friday's hand-wringing is not expected to have an immediate impact on labor unions, but it could slowly sap the strength of public sector unions, which represent about 37% of eligible workers and are in a far stronger position today than private-sector unions, which represent only 9%.

Wiley Pearson, a policy analyst at the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 600,000 federal workers, said that under current rules, government employees competing for their own jobs win more than half of all bids.

But he said the latest proposal opens many more jobs to contracting and tilts the bidding process in favor of private firms.

"We expected a major rewrite of the rules," he said. "What surprised us is that there's no subtlety about it."

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