POLITICS DECEMBER 16, 2002
For decades, Republicans have attacked Democrats' alliance with labor, slamming union "bosses" as corrupt and undemocratic. It's more than a touch ironic, then, that as the Bush administration tries to make political inroads with labor, it continues to favor unions whose recent record on these scores has been particularly problematic. The most notorious of these are the Teamsters, who appear to be currying favor with the administration in the hope that it will lift the Independent Review Board that has overseen the union since 1992 (see "Dirty Deal," April 1 & 8). But, fond as George W. Bush may be of Teamster President James P. Hoffa, the president's favorite labor leader is Douglas McCarron, the autocratic and scandal-plagued president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (UBC), who in March 2001 took his 520,000-member union out of the AFL-CIO. Bush has joined McCarron at the Carpenters' Labor Day picnics in 2001 and 2002, he has entertained McCarron twice on Air Force One, and he has made McCarron the only labor leader invited to address his Economic Summit in Houston last summer. Last month, hosting McCarron in the White House for the signing of the terrorism insurance bill, Bush singled out the UBC's president. "Appreciate your leadership, Doug," Bush said.
Some of the affinity between the U.S. president and the UBC president appears to be personal. At a Carpenters' meeting in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, in September 2001, Bush praised McCarron as a "plain-spoken fellow" and a "doer" rather than a "talker"—terms he might have used to describe himself. But Bush is also getting something more tangible out of his courtship of McCarron. McCarron contributed more than 15 percent of his union's campaign funds to Republicans this year (up from 6 percent in 2000)—a small fraction but double the average for unions overall. The UBC also endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidates Jeb Bush in Florida and Dick Posthumus in Michigan. And, of all the union leaders, McCarron is the most likely to endorse Bush's reelection in 2004, a move that would split labor's ranks and make it easier for Bush to paint himself as the working person's candidate.
Less clear is what McCarron has gotten, or hopes to get, from Bush in return. Questioned on this point, the UBC's president cites Bush's support for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a minor provision in the tax-reform bill that would boost carpenters' pensions. But any benefits the UBC might receive from these policies are dwarfed by other administration initiatives, such as overturning the Clinton administration's stronger standards on workplace muscular-skeletal injuries (which disproportionately affect the building trades) and killing an amendment to the homeland security bill that would have guaranteed that construction workers hired with department funds get prevailing wages in their locales, as mandated for other federal construction workers by the Davis-Bacon Act. Overall, the UBC has fared far worse under Bush than under Democratic administrations.
McCarron would deny it, but his real reason for supporting Bush is likely that he needs the administration's help in quashing a challenge from within his own union. Many carpenters were critical of McCarron's decision to withdraw the union from the AFL-CIO partly over a dispute concerning back dues. "It was very unpopular," explains Michael Cranmer, a carpenter from Boston, "because our general belief is that labor has strength in numbers and that you don't give that up without having a darn good reason." This October, McCarron found himself at the center of still more controversy when it was revealed that he and other directors of ULLICO, a union-owned life insurance company, had made out like bandits through insider knowledge of the company's investment in Global Crossing.Facing a possible indictment, McCarron announced on October 29 that he would return the nearly $300,000 he had made.
But most angering to union members has been McCarron's attempt to transfer power away from democratically elected local unions and put it in the hands of newly created regional councils that McCarron and his allies can more easily control. McCarron's assault on the power of the locals led directly to the formation in March 2000 of Carpenters for a Democratic Union and to a challenge to McCarron's reelection at the UBC's convention that year. It has fueled revolts in California, the Pacific Northwest, Illinois, New York, New England, and Georgia, and it has led carpenters in British Columbia to declare themselves independent of McCarron's international union. Most significant, it has inspired a legal challenge from the New England carpenters, who filed suit to force the Labor Department to find McCarron in violation of federal laws governing union elections. If the New England carpenters win their case, they could topple the hierarchical structure that McCarron has erected. And that's where Bush comes in. So far, Bush and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao have sided with McCarron against the reformers. And McCarron is counting on their continued support, even in the face of legal precedents that clearly favor his opponents.
In 1996, just one year after he was elected president of the UBC, McCarron transformed the union's structure by taking the authority to negotiate and ratify contracts, to dispatch members to jobs, and to send grievances to arbitration away from the union's 2,200 locals and transferring that authority to 55 regional councils. "The locals have become hollow shells, and the regional councils have come to have all the powers," says Carl Biers, the executive director of the Association for Union Democracy, a New York-based labor-reform group. Each regional council is controlled by a strong executive secretary- treasurer (EST). McCarron initially appointed his allies—including his younger brother—as ESTs, with the promise that ultimately the posts would be elected by delegates to the regional councils, who were in turn elected by the locals.
In practice, however, these rules were designed to ensure that the ESTs McCarron appointed would win reelection. They gave the ESTs the exclusive power to hire and fire staff for each regional council, including the contract negotiators and the servicing agents who send carpenters out on jobs.The ESTs filled these positions with the delegates to the regional councils. Thus, the delegates depended on the ESTs for their jobs and their incomes, and they were likely to support them regardless of what the members who elected them thought. Members could rebel against an EST, and in New England they did, but they could not vote him out of office directly. Instead, they had to organize slates of delegates in scores of locals across several states—a tricky proposition, especially as it would mean opposing the EST-appointed staff on whom they depended for jobs. The setup also protected McCarron's job. According to Mike Orrfelt, editor of the construction worker magazine Hardhat, almost 85 percent of the delegates to the 2000 convention that reelected McCarron were drawn from the regional council staffs that were hired by the ESTs.
But the UBC has always been an active, cantankerous union, and, soon after McCarron engineered his reorganization, he faced widespread revolt. He tried to suppress some dissident locals by punishing their leaders. Shortly after the president of the UBC's Atlanta Local 225 ran against his leadership slate at the 2000 convention, McCarron ousted him by placing the local in trusteeship. But he was not able to suppress the revolt elsewhere—particularly in New England, where opposition to McCarron has moved out of the union hall and into the courts and the Department of Labor.
In New England, the man McCarron appointed as EST quickly ran afoul of the membership by agreeing to reduce carpenters' wage levels to compete with nonunion carpenters. In 1999, a group of New England carpenters, led by Thomas Harrington, filed a formal complaint with the Department of Labor charging that the new structure created by McCarron violated the 1959 Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, which sets rules for the democratic election of union leaders. These rules are supposed to be enforced by the secretary of labor.
In the decade after the law was passed, some union leaders tried to take advantage of an ambiguity in its wording: While the law said that leaders of union "locals" had to be elected directly by their membership, it also said that the leadership of "intermediate bodies" could be chosen by representatives elected to them. Congress had in mind joint union bodies like the AFL-CIO Central Labor Councils, which have no say over collective bargaining; the bill's authors assumed that the responsibilities for collective bargaining would remain vested in the locals. Some union leaders, however, tried to move these functions to intermediate bodies. In two cases, Schultz v. Employees' Federation of the Humble Oil & Refining Co. in 1970 and Donovan v. National Transient Division, International Brotherhood of Boilermakers in 1984, the courts said they couldn't do so without making the intermediate bodies subject to the same election rules as the locals. In 1973, the Labor Department adopted a rule that the "characterization of a particular organizational unit as a `local,' `intermediate,' etc., is determined by its functions and purposes rather than the formal title by which it is known or how it classifies itself." If a body performed the functions traditionally assigned to locals—e.g., collective bargaining—then its leadership had to be directly elected by the membership.
Harrington and the New England dissidents, in other words, have both legal precedent and the Labor Department's internal rules on their side. Unfortunately, national politics are another thing altogether. Unwilling to buck a powerful union leader, President Clinton's secretary of labor, Alexis Herman, ruled against the dissidents and for McCarron, arguing incredibly that there was no "basis in the statute or in legislative history" for defining intermediate bodies by their "functions and powers." The dissidents appealed, and, early this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit heard their case.
In theory, the dissidents might have expected a better reception from the Bush administration. In his 2000 presidential campaign, Bush repeatedly portrayed himself as the champion of workers against "labor bosses." But, once elected, Bush made an early exception for McCarron, who, he explained last Labor Day, "cares deeply, deeply about the members of his union." When the dissidents' appeal was heard, Labor Secretary Chao and her department's attorneys also sided with McCarron. In her brief, Chao went even further than Herman, arguing that challenging the UBC's definition of an intermediate body could "undermine self-government within the labor movement." Asked in oral argument why Chao had failed to cite "the applicable regulation and precedents," the Labor Department's counsel opined idiotically that Chao had wanted to avoid legal terminology and to explain her position in terms that the average union member could understand. Writing for the court in February, Judge Sandra Lynch responded, "To suggest that complainants would be led astray by some discussion of the law insufficiently credits the abilities of union members. They were, after all, motivated to invoke the statute and file the complaint."
With that, the court sent Harrington v. Chao back to the Department of Labor with instructions that if the secretary continued to refuse to rule against the UBC, she would be required to file a statement of reasons "which addresses both the application of the functions and purposes test ...and whether her decision is consistent with her precedents." Though a stern rebuke, it has not yet brought action from Chao. The case continues to sit on the desk of her solicitor general, Eugene Scalia.
According to Alan Hyde, who wrote the Association for Union Democracy's brief, the lawyers for the dissidents are threatening to call for the Labor Department to be held in contempt. There is also grumbling about the decision from lawyers within the Labor Department, who believe that fidelity to the law would dictate supporting the dissidents against McCarron. The department is even being pressured to act by House Republicans on the Committee on Education and the Workforce. Unlike Bush, who has aligned his administration with the most autocratic union leaders, GOP Representatives such as Charlie Norwood and Sam Johnson have been vocal champions of rank-and-file democracy.Last May, partly in response to Harrington v. Chao, Norwood and Johnson introduced a bill that would require the officers of "intermediate bodies" that "engage in the negotiation, administration, or enforcement of collective agreements" to be elected directly by the membership. (The bill died in committee because House leaders feared a protracted battle over amendments.)
Meanwhile, don't look for Bush, Chao, and Scalia to rule against the UBC and for union democracy. If they did so, they would threaten McCarron's hold over his union and quite possibly deprive the administration of its staunchest ally in the labor movement. Indeed, on November 26, the day after Bush signed a homeland security bill likely to depress carpenters' wage levels, McCarron was back at the White House again, hobnobbing with a president who appreciates his leadership.
John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.