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Bush's Assault on Workers Rights
Progressive Populist
by Nathan Newman
June 01, 2002

Bush has been appearing at a number of events with union workers-- from announcing tariffs on imported steel to supposedly protect steel jobs to promising oil drilling jobs in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to Teamsters. Does this mean that Bush's "compassionate conservatism" includes a pro-union component?


Despite all the media fuss over Teamsters and some building trades support for ANWR drilling, the media has largely ignored the opposition to Bush's energy policy by major unions ranging from the Service Employees International Union to the Communication Workers of America. As for steel tariffs, Bush's policy ignored a key demand of the Steelworkers union: guaranteeing the health care and pensions of workers threatened by the bankruptcy of their previous employers.

But then, promoting corporate bailouts while ignoring direct help for workers has been Bush's policy from day one of his administration. When airlines were bailed out after the September 11th attacks, none of the $15 billion in money went to help the workers laid off by the airlines. Worse, both before and after the attacks, the administration intervened to block strikes at Northwest, Delta and United Airlines to prevent workers from demanding fair treatment by the airlines.

Bush may be trying to clothe his anti-worker actions by cutting a few deals with folks like Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. at the Teamsters union, but even many top Teamster officials aren't buying it. Chuck Mack, the Teamsters Vice President for the Western Region, has called Bush's labor policy "a nightmare for workers." The AFL-CIO Building Trades Department labeled Bush's policies "nothing short of a declaration of war on construction workers." And these are supposedly the unions closest to the administration.

It's not hard to see why the attacks on Bush are so scathing, since beneath his rhetoric, he has mounted an attack on unions and workers rights on a sweeping scale. Topping the anti-worker agenda of the Bush administration, of course, was its 2001 tax cut for the wealthy last year, which aside from paying back his campaign contributors, was designed to bankrupt the government and prevent new spending for national health insurance, day care or any other initiatives to assist working families. But the anti-worker agenda is shown in a wide range of other initiatives and appointments Bush has made. Here is just a partial review since his taking office.

In his first days in office, Bush issued four executive orders to directly undermine labor organizing

  • Ending Project Labor Agreements: The first order (found illegal by the courts later in the year) sought to bar what are known as project labor agreements on all federally funded construction projects, agreements that encourage union contracts and labor peace that been regularly used since the 1940s.
  • Ending Rights When Federal Contractors Change: The second revoked a rule designed to reduce turnover in low-wage jobs which had required federal contractors to rehire displaced workers when the government changed contractors.
  • Abolishing Labor-Management Systems: The third order abolished employee participation systems in the federal government that had given employees a voice and led to numerous cost-savings measures benefiting all taxpayers.
  • Undermining Union Dues: The fourth (also struck down by courts as illegal) required government contractors to post notices highlighting ways for workers to object to union dues, while not requiring the posting of any other workers rights to organize or join unions.

Bush followed these orders with a "review" and termination of a number of Clinton-era regulations. These included:

  • Ergonomics Regulations: Bush signed off on the GOP's repeal of regulations designed to prevent injuries from repetitive motion and compensate the victims of on-the-job injuries. The administration has yet to issue replacement regulations and have announced they will favor "voluntary" measures by businesses that have contributed millions of dollars to the GOP to preserve the status quo.
  • Contracts for Corporate Criminals: The Bush administration repealed "responsible contractor" rules that would have denied billions of dollars in government contracts to chronic corporate violators of our environmental, labor and safety laws.
  • Black Lung Regulations: Bush's administration attorneys persuaded a federal judge to suspend new black lung regulations that went into effect on January 19, 2001 that would helped streamline claims by dying miners in claiming benefits from the mining industry.

Bush has also loaded up his administration with a range of rightwing anti-union officials who have pledged to rollback day-to-day enforcement of workers' rights:

Labor Department Secretary: After the firestorm of protest over his initial choice of Linda Chavez as Labor Secretary, Bush's second choice was Elaine Chao, a policy analyst from the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, where she had attacked affirmative action programs and minimum wage laws as undermining "free enterprise." Under her leadership, the department has pledged that it would emphasize "compliance assistance" for companies, rather than actual enforcement of workplace laws.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Similarly, Bush's OSHA chief John Henshaw has announced a focus on compliance and "voluntary" programs and using enforcement only to stop "the worst law breakers."

Labor Department Solicitor: Facing a firestorm of opposition, Bush used a recess appointment to bypass the Senate to make anti-worker lawyer Eugene Scalia (son of the Supreme Court Justice) the top lawyer for the Labor Department. Scalia has campaigned against ergonomics rules as "junk science" and in a 10-year career as a labor lawyer, he represented only two workers amidst a practice of fighting for large corporations against workers rights.

National Labor Relations Board: Again bypassing the Senate, Bush made two recent recess appointments to the five-member NLRB, Michael Bartlett and William Cowen. Barlett previously headed labor policy at the Chamber of Commerce, while Cowen was founder of a notoriously anti-union labor firm. With a new majority of GOP appointees, we can soon expect serious reversals of pro-union precedents by the NLRB.

Justice Department: John Ashcroft's anti-civil liberties policies have gotten the headlines, but he has also taken advantage of the post-Sept 11th crisis to terminate union representation and collective bargaining agreements in several Justice Department agencies in the name of "national security."

All of this has been done largely without any new legislation, but if the GOP can retake control of the Senate this fall, Bush will no doubt continue this record with a whole new raft of anti-union legislation.

Bush may be using a few select union leaders as props for photo opportunities as the camera bulbs flash brightly, but his policies are increasingly leaving workers rights in the dark

Nathan Newman is a labor lawyer and longtime community activist, a national vice president of the National Lawyers Guild and author of the forthcoming book Net Loss on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email or see

Posted by Nathan at June 01, 2002 09:56 AM