Union Leaders Faced with New Political Challenges

Article excerpt

LOS ANGELES -- The nation's labor leaders, seeing early signs that the new man in the White House will be less friendly than his predecessor, say they'll fight any attempt by the Bush administration to erode the role of unions in America's workplace.

"We're aware that there's nothing in President Bush's background to suggest that he's much of a supporter of workers' rights to join unions," Mark Splain, AFL-CIO organizing director, said at the group's winter meeting. "We're not going to stand by and allow any further deterioration of those rights."

Bush already has signaled that unions don't have the same place at the table that they did in the Clinton administration. Bush is considering a rollback in Clinton administration rules aimed at barring from government contracts those who have broken environmental, labor, tax and other laws.

Bush also is considering an executive order to ban labor agreements on any project that receives federal money. In addition, he could disband labor-management partnership councils created by Clinton.

"The early warning we got was their decision to float these executive orders," said Bill Samuel, AFL-CIO legislative director. "That's not a good sign. That's not a good way to begin an administration when you're supposed to be reaching out."

New Labor Secretary Elaine Chao is scheduled to address the AFL- CIO's executive council today, the first time many labor leaders directly hear about the administration's plans.

Unions are a cornerstone of the Democratic base, and their members overwhelmingly backed Al Gore over Bush in last year's election.

A record 26 percent of voters who turned out were from union households, and 2 million new voters were registered in the election cycle -- the result, union leaders say, of unprecedented organizing.

But Gore's loss hasn't been organized labor's only setback. Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell last year to 13.5 percent - - the lowest in six decades. …