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Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 2004 / 21 Elul, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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State of the unions ... 10 minutes with Linda Chavez | Linda Chavez, President Bush's original choice for secretary of Labor, knows all about how labor unions work and how — despite their steadily shrinking membership — they corrupt politics by funneling their members' dues into the coffers of the Democratic Party.

The syndicated JWR columnist, talk show host and FOX News analyst used to be an official with the American Federation of Teachers. She also worked as a civil rights administrator in the Reagan administration, where her distaste for affirmative action first earned her the enmity of liberals.

In the media and political firestorm that followed the revelation in January 2001 that she had harbored a battered illegal alien women in her home, Chavez asked President Bush to withdraw her name from nomination as Labor secretary.

With her new book, "Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics," (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) just out and Labor Day nigh, we thought we'd talk with Chavez.

Q: Are there good unions and bad unions, and what's the difference?

A: Well, I think the reason we've seen the big change in labor unions is because more and more unions today represent government workers. About one in two members of the AFL-CIO works for one level of government or another. I think that's had a very bad effect on unions. It's made them much more political. And frankly, it's also harmed the rest of us, because the influence of those government unions has had a dramatic change and raised taxes and led to bigger government and bigger government programs.

Q: What do you mean when you say the Democrat Party has become a wholly owned subsidiary of "Big Labor"?

A: First of all, unions represent the biggest contribution of manpower and money into the Democratic Party today. This election cycle, unions will spend around $800 million trying to defeat George W. Bush and elect John Kerry. Most of that money does not come from voluntary contributions to political action committees, which I have no problem with.

If people want to voluntarily give money to whatever candidate, I think that is their constitutional right. What I'm talking about is the use of union dues that many people pay as a condition of their employment being siphoned off and used to fund the Democratic Party to the tune of, as I say, close to $800 million this election cycle.

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Q: What is this "corrupt bargain" between Democrats and Big Labor?

A: Well, in order to stay in power, Democrats use and need union money. If it were not for the huge, massive infusion of dues from union members into the coffers of Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party, I don't think you would have seen an election nearly as close as it was in 2000. This election cycle, you have got one union alone, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that has committed $65 million to defeat George W. Bush and an additional $35 million from one local of that union alone, Local 1199 here in New York City.

I call that a "corrupt bargain" because essentially the Democrats then become beholden to labor unions, and because so many union members work for one level of government or another, they're actually funding and putting in office the people who sit down with them at the collective bargaining table and bargain with them. Teachers unions, for example, notoriously get involved in school district elections for school board, elections for mayor.

Q: What would be examples of the damage this "corrupt bargain" creates?

A: You don't have to look very far in Pennsylvania to see what the municipal unions did to the city of Philadelphia. They essentially bankrupted the city by driving up the cost of municipal services by insisting on a ridiculous array of benefits, including essentially a day a week off — 52 days paid vacation — and other kinds of leave that was written into union contracts with the city. It drove the city of Philadelphia into junk bond status in terms of its bonds and literally almost drove the city out of biz.

Q: Why is what unions do to influence the Democrat Party any worse than what businesses do to influence the Republican Party?

A: There is a big difference between the way unions operate and the rules that apply to all other organizations, including corporations. Corporations cannot give corporate money to the party or to candidates. That is a violation of campaign finance law.

Unions, however, can take union dues — money that people are paying as a condition of employment — and use that money to put political operatives into campaigns. The SEIU is doing it this year to the tune of 3,500 members. They can use that money to print up campaign brochures and pass them out. They can use that money to set up phone banks.

All of that is legal with one proviso: Unions are required, number one, to declare the money they spend on politics on their tax returns. The problem is that most unions today do not declare that money.

Q: What would be the most important reform in federal law to remove the privileges that unions have?

A: The most important reform that could take place is one that I work on with my organization, Stop Union Political Abuse. And that is, I would restrict the rights of unions to use their dues only for the core purposes of their union — collective bargaining, organizing members, negotiating contracts and administering those contracts.

The second reform that I think goes hand-in-hand with that is better disclosure and better monitoring of union financing. Corporations under the security exchange laws are required to have independent audits of their books. I think unions also ought to have independent audits, and they ought to have full disclosure of how they are spending their money so their members know that money is going to the core purposes of the union instead of being siphoned off into politics.

Q: Does the Republican Party have the will to do what is necessary?

A: Well, unfortunately, with the Democrats and the Republicans being roughly 50-50 and with unions being smart enough to give about 5 percent of their contributions to Republicans, there are just enough Republicans who will join with Democrats to stop reform.

We're simply asking for the same kind of rules to apply to unions that currently apply to corporations. We're not asking for unions to be treated more harshly. We're not asking for unions to be stifled in their ability to express their political point of view, but it all ought to be with voluntary money.

And hopefully with more of this word getting out, and I'm hoping that my book will have an influence on getting that message out, we'll turn around some of these folks in Congress and, who knows, we might actually get a bill through Congress the next time around.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald