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The Boston Phoenix Labor Pains

The alliance between Al Gore and big labor exposes the Clinton administration's soft line on union corruption

By Seth Gitell

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  The AFL-CIO needs Al Gore. Not for his position on trade, which it opposes. Nor for his opinion on China's joining the World Trade Organization -- with which it also disagrees. Big labor needs Gore to maintain what union dissidents, labor-democracy advocates, and Washington insiders see as the Clinton administration's lenient approach to corruption in the labor movement. To these observers, the AFL-CIO's early endorsement of Gore's presidential campaign may have been more about protecting labor leaders than about advancing the interests of American workers.

Central to this suspicion is a series of cases in which the Justice Department is moving slowly in prosecuting allegations of corruption in the labor movement or is cutting sweet deals for labor leaders implicated in wrongful activity. Consider the following:

* The sluggish investigation into corruption in the Teamsters union. More than two years after the Justice Department began its investigation, prosecutors last month won a conviction against William Hamilton, the former political director of the Teamsters, for his role in diverting union funds to the 1996 re-election campaign of Ron Carey, whose victory over James Hoffa in the Teamsters' presidential election was subsequently reversed by federal monitors because of the money laundering. Yet other figures who may have played a major role have yet to be touched.

In particular, prosecutors outlined the role of Richard Trumka, the secretary-general of the AFL-CIO, who evidence suggests may have facilitated an illegal scheme to kick back $150,000 of Teamsters funds to the Carey campaign through a donation to Citizens Action, a liberal activist organization. Trumka took the Fifth Amendment in the case. (Legally, pleading the Fifth cannot be taken as an admission of guilt. But it is grounds for dismissal as a union officer under the AFL-CIO's Ethical Practices Code, and the federation expelled the Teamsters for taking the Fifth during the 1950s.)

Further trial testimony revealed that Gerald McEntee, the president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, and Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), also agreed to contribute to Carey's campaign in violation of federal labor rules governing the election. (An SEIU spokesperson says no such offer was ever received by or agreed to by Stern.) Trumka and McEntee were key proponents of the AFL-CIO's October endorsement of Gore. The Hamilton trial finally took place after that endorsement -- a coincidence that saved Gore some embarrassment when he addressed the labor federation.

* The case of Arthur Coia, president of the Laborers' International Union. Coia, who once faced the prospect of a massive civil racketeering suit, was able to work out a deal that gave the union the ability to monitor itself and allowed him to retire at the equivalent of his annual salary of $335,516. In March, a union hearing officer found Coia guilty on conflict-of-interest charges stemming from the purchase of a $450,000 Ferrari from a Rhode Island car dealer, who helped the union boss sidestep luxury taxes on the car. Coia, a Clinton ally who once attended a state dinner with the emperor of Japan, resigned as the president of the union earlier this month. He is said to be negotiating a plea agreement with federal prosecutors on the relatively benign conflict-of-interest charge.

* The case of Edward Hanley. The former president of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union forged an immunity agreement with federal prosecutors last year. Despite a federal monitor's finding that Hanley used union funds to pay for a $2.5 million jet, and Cadillacs for union leaders, his deal with authorities shields him from prosecution. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that the Justice Department gave federal prosecutors only two weeks to determine whether a criminal case could be made against Hanley.

If Gore were a better candidate than Bill Bradley on labor issues, these matters would be irrelevant. But in fact, an argument can be made that the opposite is true. Bradley, who was a steward in the players' union when he played with the NBA, has embraced a sweeping plan to provide health care to the poorest Americans. He is calling for tough penalties on companies that illegally hinder unions from organizing, and he supports labor's position on common situs picketing, or the right to picket everywhere on construction sites. Finally, he wholeheartedly supports what is the holy grail of labor organizing -- card check. If this provision is accepted, all a union has to do is get more than half a company's employees to sign union cards, and -- presto -- they have a union.

Gore, meanwhile, is the candidate who appeared on Larry King Live to make the case for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) before the deal, which was opposed by all the national labor unions, passed in the United States. Gore is also the candidate who presided over a series of trade agreements between this country and its foreign trading partners -- including the agreement on China's entry into the World Trade Organization. He relies heavily on principals of a consulting firm that helped craft the grassroots campaign for NAFTA, and he is surrounded by conservative Democratic Leadership Council operatives who have worked hard to make the Democratic Party friendly to business. Finally, Gore has served as vice-president during an era that has seen more concentration of wealth and income into the hands of a few than the country has witnessed in 70 years. Gore even seemed to acknowledge Bradley's stronger support for labor when he labeled his rival a "left-of-center insurgent."

Labor's backing of Gore is a pretty cynical move, says Kim Moody, director of Labor Notes, a labor-democracy group based in Detroit. "The idea is that a good deal for labor is, they get to protect their most crooked guys," Moody says. "The Democrats are going to go softer on those people in some cases. That's the one thing that Gore and these people can do for organized labor. They're not going to give them card check. They're not going to give them global labor standards, which labor really needs. But they could give them the ability to protect their leaders who have their hands caught in the till. I don't think it's a good thing at all."

Alex Corns, the business manager for Hod Carriers Local 36 in Daly City, California, agrees. "If we had a Justice Department that was being run by straight-up people, [Coia] would have been removed," says Corns. "You haven't heard anything about the [Teamsters] money-laundering scandal. What happened to all that? It all vanished. It's in the AFL-CIO's best interests to keep Gore in there. Somebody like Bradley might be too much of an individual for them."

"That has nothing to do with why we endorsed Al Gore," counters AFL-CIO spokeswoman Deborah Dion. "We endorsed Al Gore because he stood shoulder to shoulder with the labor movement during the critical last five years of an anti-working-family Republican Congress."

Granted, what Dion's implying is undeniably true: the GOP is labor's main political enemy. And some observers say that by going with the front-runner so early -- even if he is not the best candidate to promote their interests -- labor is doing the most it can to head off a Republican victory. If George W. Bush is elected president, after all, labor will find itself in an even worse position than it's in today. Bush signaled as much at the most recent Republican debate in Iowa, when he targeted the unions' practice of deducting dues automatically from workers' paychecks and using them for political purposes. "The Democratic Party is really the Democratic Party and the labor unions in America," he said. "And my worry is that you do nothing about what's called paycheck protection . . . You can't take a laboring man's money and spend it the way you see fit."

But given labor leaders' possible implication in wrongdoing, lack of support for union practices isn't the only thing labor would have to worry about if the Republicans recaptured the White House. For an example of what top officials of organized labor might be up against in a Bush administration, look no further than the husband-and-wife team of Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing. DiGenova served as the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia under Ronald Reagan; Toensing was a Justice Department official under Reagan as well. They worked for a Republican-led congressional committee that investigated the Teamsters probe. Toensing says evidence dug up by her committee pointed to more potential criminal liability than was investigated. "The evidence we had in our hearings pointed to Trumka's involvement," Toensing says.

The labor leaders and their supporters, of course, say they have nothing to fear. Trumka's attorney -- Nicole Seligman of the well-known Washington firm Williams & Connolly, who represented President Clinton in his impeachment trial -- has proclaimed her client's innocence in statements to the press. The lawyers for the other principals have done likewise. Asked whether his client Arthur Coia may have received mild treatment at the hands of prosecutors, Williams & Connolly's Howard Gutman says, "That rumor was preposterous when made and proven to be preposterous at congressional hearings." And as to whether the Manhattan US Attorney's office may be dragging its feet in the Teamsters investigation, Gutman says, "It would be absurd to think that it would matter to a professional prosecutor what any party a labor official belonged to. Anybody who knows the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York knows they could not be influenced in the slightest by politics."

Neither the Justice Department nor the US Attorney's office in New York responded to telephone calls seeking comment. Gore, who has taken no formal position on the continuing Justice Department oversight of the Teamsters, told the Associated Press that the case should be decided "on the legal merits, not on the basis of what I think or the president thinks." All Bush-campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker would say on the matter of potential inquiries into labor corruption is that "a Bush administration would make decisions based on what's best for the country, not based on politics."

As the Clinton/Gore connection to labor corruption unfolds, opposition to the Gore endorsement is emerging. The president of the Teamsters, James Hoffa, has not followed the lead of the AFL-CIO in endorsing the vice-president. Neither has the United Auto Workers. Even Robert Reich, President Clinton's former secretary of labor, elected to endorse Bradley last month. "Bill Bradley has come up with a set of policies that are better for the working people than the policies advanced by Al Gore in this campaign," says Reich, who now teaches at Brandeis University. "This economic expansion is most notable for the huge concentration of wealth and income it's created at the top. Families in the middle have barely seen any improvement in their incomes, and working families below them are working harder for less money."

Labor activists on the local level are echoing Reich's message. In New Hampshire, Beth Campbell, a board member of SEIU Local 1984, says she is with Bradley because the former senator favors tougher penalties on companies that play dirty to fight organizing efforts. In San Francisco, Doug Yamamoto, the business representative of the Glaziers and Glassworkers Union Local 718, is supporting Bradley because Bradley favors letting unions picket both union and non-union gates at a worksite. Yamamoto says that Bradley got a standing ovation for his stance at the national meeting of his organization. And Tom Shea, the business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' Local 405, appeared at an event with Bradley last week in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "I was impressed with him at a Jefferson-Jackson Day orchestrated by a lot of people that like to be a shill for Mr. Gore," Shea says. "Sometimes the internationals forget to check with local people to see how they really feel before they put forward their opinion."

The AFL-CIO is unfazed by this dissent among the ranks. "We're very proud of the fact that we endorsed Al Gore," says the AFL-CIO's Dion. Back in October, the AFL-CIO's president, John Sweeney, lauded Gore for his 88 percent labor voting record as a senator from Tennessee -- an anti-labor state. Sweeney praised Gore's work on workplace health, wage standards, Medicare, and Social Security. Dion also claims that Gore supports the card-check policy that would make it far easier for unions to organize, and notes that Gore talked about it at an AFL-CIO convention four years ago in Pittsburgh. Gore has added a reference to card check in his talking points to labor.

Does Reich, who headed the Labor Department during much of the Clinton-Gore years, remember Gore's being a big supporter of card check? "No." Did Gore lobby Reich to help make card check a reality? "No." Does Reich remember Gore's saying anything about the issue? "No."

"Gore isn't proposing to do this," Reich says.

Of course, there are reasonable arguments to be made for the AFL-CIO leadership's hasty endorsement of Gore over Bradley. Both candidates have pretty lousy records on trade. At least Gore, as an avowed environmentalist, wants the World Trade Organization to deal with issues that affect the environment and would like labor concerns to be considered. (Bradley announced support for similar labor and environmental protections recently at Tufts University.) Then there is the thinking that labor is best served when it comes out early and marshals its power in favor of a single candidate. This is what the AFL-CIO argued in its endorsement resolution: "The best opportunity to influence the outcome of the 2000 elections is through the early and full participation of working men and women . . . The 2000 election cycle is already well advanced. The issues that will drive decisions in November of next year are being shaped now, and the presidential nominees will be chosen by early March. Every week we delay the full involvement of working people in that process will lessen the impact of our views and voices."

But essentially, labor leaders are with Gore because he is the devil they know. Notwithstanding talk of scandal and illegal activity, big labor likes the Democratic establishment. In this case, that means Gore. Many of the labor leaders in this country -- John Sweeney and Gerald McEntee, to name a couple -- are closely allied with the Clinton-Gore administration. McEntee, in particular, spoke passionately on Gore's behalf at the AFL-CIO's convention in October.

Big labor is also closely allied with Clinton fundraiser Terry McAuliffe, the businessman who offered to back the $1.35 million mortgage for the Clintons' new home in Chappaqua, New York. The New York Times has reported that a union pension fund loaned him $50 million to finance one of his real-estate deals, and Vanity Fair notes that the AFL-CIO used Household International Corp. -- a banking client of McAuliffe and Martin Davis, a campaign consultant implicated in the Teamsters scandal -- for its credit-card business. The union's decision won McAuliffe a share of millions of dollars in commission money.

McAuliffe is the focus of some scrutiny because of a plan -- the details of which have emerged as a result of the federal Teamsters probe -- for the union to siphon money to the Carey campaign through the Democratic Party. In his interview with the New York Times, he acknowledged that he discussed a swap of donations between the Teamsters and the Democratic Party, but he said he did not know the DNC money was supposed to go to Carey's campaign. His lawyer has told the press that McAuliffe is innocent of any wrongdoing. Without even speculating about his role in these matters, it is worth asking what labor has to gain by allying itself with a fat cat like McAuliffe, who is, as Vanity Fair puts it, "a self-made multimillionaire, with a fortune that may reach into nine digits." McAuliffe represents big money -- the kind of money usually found in the GOP, not the national labor movement.

Some labor activists, in fact, fear that potential new union members will stay away if the American labor movement seeks to further its relationships with the Terry McAuliffes of the world. That's what's led Beth Campbell to get behind the Bradley campaign, which has put the spotlight on campaign-finance reform. "I'm tired of fundraising phone calls being made from the White House," Campbell says. "I'm tired of them having fundraisers at a Buddhist temple. I'm tired of having everything being whitewashed over."

Kim Moody, of Labor Notes, thinks the current system works against labor's interests. "I don't think it helps that there are these slimeballs who raise money. It helps to get Democrats elected, but it doesn't do anything for labor," Moody says, suggesting that it might be better for labor if it had emulated its counterparts in Europe and created a labor or working-class political party.

Indeed, some activists see the Gore endorsement as a disappointing sign of how little the labor movement has really done to keep up with the times. When John Sweeney ascended to the helm of the AFL-CIO in 1995, many observers saw that as a watershed election. Sweeney had wrestled control of the movement from the Lane Kirkland wing that predominated in the waning days of the Cold War. Kirkland and his protégé, Tom Donahue, were social-democratic Cold Warriors who had aided the Polish solidarity movement and helped bring an end to Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. But labor activists came to find them out of step with changing realities. Sweeney's election was supposed to usher in an energetic new age of labor activism.

To be sure, some of this has happened. Sweeney has helped publicize the horrors of sweatshops. Labor organizing has targeted new immigrants and forged alliances with other progressive causes. But the four years since Sweeney's election have shown the current labor leadership to be more of an interregnum, caught between two eras. Although Sweeney was outspoken in opposition to the Seattle WTO talks and on China's entry into that body, his tenure will most likely be characterized by the grand alliance between labor and the Clinton-Gore administration -- an alliance we will see in full bloom during the summer months, when one of Gore's likeliest defenses against Bush's TV attacks will come from labor ads (see "Going for Broke," News and Features, December 17).

The real future of the labor movement probably lies in the grassroots activism that put Seattle on the map and the pragmatic dynamism of the Teamsters leader, Hoffa, who is waiting to see what he can get out of the politicians before deciding to carry their water. Until that future arrives, though, expect more contortions from labor -- and Gore -- as they try to work out the details of their unlikely partnership.

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