Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #10 May 22, 2001

Bush Woos Building Trades on Energy,
Widens Policy Rift Within Federation

By Harry Kelber

By promising that thousands of new jobs will be created, President George W. Bush has attracted the support of national labor leaders in the building trades, Teamsters, steelworkers, and maritime unions for parts of his energy plan, including oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

At a May 14 White House meeting, Vice President Dick Cheney regaled 30 union officers with rosy descriptions of the Bush blueprint that calls for the construction of 1,300 to 1,900 power plants and 18,000 miles of fuel pipelines in the next 20 years.

Cheney, who headed the task force that crafted the Bush plan, earned more than $20 million last year as CEO of Halliburton, an oil-field services company that would benefit greatly from loosening regulations on refineries and pipelines.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was not invited to the meeting. In a statement on May 17, Sweeney said: “We welcome the fact that the Bush Administration and congressional Democrats have reached out to the unions of the AFL-CIO to discuss their proposals for a national energy policy. We will evaluate these plans as workers, consumers, and as citizens who depend on a healthy environment.”

Major environmental groups vehemently oppose Bush’s proposals, especially Arctic oil drilling. As a result, the labor-environmentalist coalition which Sweeney has assiduously fostered (and which helped to defeat former President Clinton’s “fast track” trade bill), could be strained or seriously damaged.

Congressional Democrats regard the Bush plan as a giveaway to his corporate contributors and cronies in the energy industry. They have introduced legislation for controls that would force down the price of electricity and encourage conservation through incentives to consumers. Tax credits of up to $4,000 for the purchase of energy-efficient homes and cars would be offered under the Democrats’ plan.

Politically, the labor endorsements Bush is gathering will strengthen his position with union voters — particularly “Reagan Democrats” who gave him better than 30% of their votes in 2000. The construction unions have always represented the more conservative wing of the AFL-CIO, and the Teamsters, who endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980, know that if they want to be freed from Justice Dept. supervision in the next four to eight years, they’ve got to reach an accommodation with the President.

Robert Black, a Teamster union spokesman, said: “We have areas of agreement with the Bush energy plan, but we have not endorsed it in its entirety. We support the drilling of oil in the Arctic. It will create 25,000 Teamster jobs. We certainly favor the creation of power plants and pipelines for the same reason.”

The construction unions’ warmth toward the Bush Administration may also reflect their resentment of the services and public sector unions, which usually support Democratic legislative initiatives. While the building trades’ power within the federation dwindles, the Service Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are the darlings of the Sweeney administration. They long for the good old days when George Meany, a plumber, ruled the federation.

There is no guarantee that only union members will be working on the power plants and pipelines Bush envisions. Construction unions represent less than 20% of the industry, and Bush has already deferred to non-union contractors by opposing Project Labor Agreements, which require the hiring of skilled union members. There will be jobs galore in the industry for the foreseeable future, but a critical shortage of skilled workers can be expected if Bush gets his way.

The Steelworkers would like to see only American steel used on all the proposed construction, but that is not likely to happen since the United States has to comply with the “free trade” regulations that it wants to impose on other countries.

In short, the President is making energy policy a “wedge” issue to divide the AFL-CIO from its coalition partners and exacerbate divisions within the federation. He has no intention of rescinding his punitive executive orders or modifying his anti-labor agenda.

Unless the AFL-CIO leadership figures out how to resolve the tensions that the Bush team is determined to exploit, it will have difficulty in devising a winning political strategy for 2002 and beyond.

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