- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2001

Labor unions are rallying in Los Angeles to figure out how they will defend themselves against a new presidential administration that is threatening to take away many of the gains they had made in the past eight years.

The AFL-CIO labor federation, whose membership is at its lowest point in six decades, convened its winter meeting yesterday, as President Bush considers rolling back policies that protect unions.

"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," AFL-CIO Organizing Director Mark Splain said this week. "We're not going to stand by and allow any further deterioration of those rights."

Mr. Bush is considering eliminating Clinton administration rules that would bar companies that have broken environmental, labor, tax and other laws from receiving government contracts.

Mr. 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 President Clinton.

A local example is Maryland's project labor agreement for the construction of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. State officials have agreed to a project labor agreement that combines work rules and conditions of 15 unions into one contract. The executive order already prepared by the Bush administration could override it.

"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 tried to reassure the AFL-CIO's executive council yesterday that the Bush administration will take its concerns seriously.

"Even if the administration and the labor unions disagree on points, she wanted to make sure they knew they had a place at the table, even in areas of disagreement," said Stuart Roy, Labor Department spokesman. "You can disagree on policy without it becoming a personal battle."

But any comforting words Mrs. Chao had for organized labor were overshadowed by the fact the movement is trying to regain lost ground.

Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell last year to 13.5 percent. Unions also have had difficulty attracting new members from the fast-growing high-tech community.

"There are huge changes in the economy," said Rich Greer, AFL-CIO spokesman. "A lot of manufacturing jobs have shifted from a union environment to a nonunion environment or have gone overseas."

He also blamed management opposition and lackluster recruiting by unions. "We're not doing enough," Mr. Greer said.

John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president, made similar remarks this week in Los Angeles. He said the 400,000 new members the AFL-CIO recruited through its 68 national and international labor unions last year were not enough. He set a goal of 1 million new members per year and asked unions to devote more of their resources to recruitment.

"There are many some in Washington and some right here in Los Angeles who would like to turn back the clock and try to destroy our renewed commitment," Mr. Sweeney said. "To those who would turn back the clock, to those who have no respect for our work [or] our families, we say: 'We will not be moved.' "

The AFL-CIO also has scheduled town-hall meetings across the country to help boost the union's "Respect Work/Strengthen Family" agenda.

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