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Published: Thursday, 5/29/2003

Labor's Chao declares unions obstinate

BY ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON - The war between the Bush administration and labor unions worsened yesterday when Labor Secretary Elaine Chao told reporters top union leadership is filled with vitriol and refuses to work with her.

Some labor officials, she said, won't even meet with her. But she refused to be more specific or identify any labor officials she put in that category.

Some members of the AFL-CIO executive council have said this is one of the most anti-labor administrations in U.S. history.

Asked how she plans to repair the damage with organized labor, she said, “I am always so surprised, well, not surprised, but frustrated, when I hear that question.”

She added, “I can't work with them if they don't want to work with me.” The AFL-CIO, she said, does not have “an open mind” toward the Bush administration. She said individual union leaders don't have to go through the federation of unions to meet with her, and that they have unprecedented access to her as head of the Department of Labor.

Noting that organized labor now represents only 12 percent of the work force, she said that the confrontational manner she accuses labor leaders of having means there is “less incentive to have unions in the workplace'' and that employers do not want to deal with them.

She accused the AFL-CIO Web site of fostering some of the most “vitriolic,” and “slanderous,” and “barbed” rhetoric she said she has ever come across. She also called labor's rhetoric “exaggerated” and “overheated.”

Union officials say the administration is anti-worker because it opposes a minimum-wage increase, proposes to limit pension guarantees, has cut back some health and safety measures, fought unionization among federal workers, and wants new rules on overtime that unions oppose.

Creation by Congress of the new Department of Homeland Security was held up for weeks because unions opposed the administration's plan to deny employees of the new department collective-bargaining rights and civil service protections. The unions lost. Mr. Bush and Republicans won last year's congressional elections by attacking Democrats who voted for such protections.

The postings on the AFL-CIO Web site say such things as: “Millionaires win under tax bill passed by Congress. Working families mobilize to stop [President] Bush's attack on overtime pay. Mr. Bush's policies hit women hard.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has met many times with Ms. Chao. In response to a question about his relations with the Bush administration, he said a few days ago, “It's important that Americans understand the impact of the administration's policies on working families. Their ripple effect is devastating. I hope by the end of 2004 we'll see some changes.” He said he meant that he hopes Mr. Bush is defeated next year.

That, said Ms. Chao, who comes from a background in business, shows the bias of organized labor, because “90 percent” of its political efforts and money go to Democrats.

The impasse between Ms. Chao and the AFL-CIO reached its low point in February when she spoke in a closed-door meeting with the federation's executive council.

“I thought I made a very nice speech,” she said yesterday. “I thought it was a very conciliatory and friendly speech. I was completely floored by press reports.”

Labor officials came out of the speech enraged, saying she had vowed to impose new disclosure requirements on political activities of labor unions, seen as a political move by unions and a misuse of regulatory authority.



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