REPORT/John McDaid

GOP Business Chair Aims to Split Labor

St. Louis
Less than two weeks before the November elections, conservative Congressman Jim Talent met with representatives from several employer groups to plan political strategy for the coming year.

The employers wanted to turn back a Clinton Administration decision that they claimed favored unions on federal construction projects. Talent's objectives were more far-reaching. The Missouri Republican sought to demonize labor and put another crack into the Democratic coalition. As chairman of the House Small Business Committee, he offered to hold hearings to attack the administration, but first he wanted the various groups would join in a grand coalition and agree on a single public relations strategy to win public support.

Usurping the language of affirmative action advocates, he pushed the claim that it is unions, not employers, who are unfair and opposed to equal rights for women and minorities. The employer groups liked the idea. At least one group was so impressed with Talent's strategic vision it later touted him as a replacement for Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House, though he made no serious attempt for the post.

The administration decision that raised the ire of construction employers and Talent allows "project labor agreements" on federally funded construction projects. Those are agreements between the federal government and unions over wages, benefit payments and a grievance procedures on specific government-funded projects. Typically, the parties agree to terms before the federal agency takes contractor bids for the work.

In effect, the labor agreement becomes a condition of the bid. Management consultants FMI report that in some cases unions reaching project labor agreements took 10 percent pay cuts and waived benefits. In every case, unions agree to accept and work peacefully on the project with nonunion workers.

The Associated General Contractors (AGC), for one, is making defeating project labor agreements a top priority for 1999.

Talent held his meeting at the Frontenac Hilton in a tony St. Louis suburb. The all-white group included representatives from the AGC and such anti-union employer groups as the Associated Builders and Contractors, the Independent Electrical Contractors and the National Association of Women Business Owners attended, as well as representatives of the Congress of Independent Unions, an Illinois-based federation of company unions.

Talent also had letters of support for the effort from the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the American Asian Contractors Association, the Latin Builders Association and the United States Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce.

The mostly nonunion employer representatives gave Talent a laundry list of technical arguments against project labor agreements, such as they interfere with the employer-employee relationship and increase the cost of benefits.

Talent, a management-side labor lawyer, indicated his understanding of the points, but skillfully moved the groups to embrace broader arguments. He wanted to turn opposition to project labor agreements into a civil rights issue.

"Unions are anti-women and anti-minority," he said. "Project labor agreements exclude women and minorities from federal construction projects." Instead of excluding disadvantaged groups from federal contracts, the Clinton administration should be trying to increase their participation, he said.

Bill Green, a black operating engineer in San Francisco with 30 years experience running cranes, when later told about the meeting, said many construction union members are racists, "but employers are twice as bad." As much trouble as minorities have with unions, he said, "without the little bit of backing we do get, we'd be in serious trouble, because we'd have no way to fight this sort of discrimination."

Eddie Hasan, executive director of MOKAN, a minority contractors' association in Missouri and Kansas, isn't quite ready to tie his future to Talent, either. Told about Talent's agenda, Hasan said he opposes project labor agreements that don't also have a minority inclusion goal, but supports those that do. "Give us a guarantee like they give the unions," he said.

Mike Orrfelt, publisher of a rank-and-file construction worker magazine called Hard Hat, said Talent is trying to take advantage of a real weakness in construction unions, though it is a weakness that varies across the country. It is interesting that in their effort to woo women and minorities and present a more moderate image, Republicans would try to exploit such weaknesses to split-off portions of the Democratic coalition.

Talent's counterpart in the Senate is another Missourian, Republican Senator Christopher Bond. In the November election, Bond garnered approximately one-third of the black vote in his successful campaign for re-election, one of the highest totals of any Republican candidate nationwide. He also reached out to blacks on anti-labor lines. He exploited the fact that labor (and the majority of environmentalists) rammed the nomination of Jay Nixon, through the Democratic Party--threatening nine months before the primary to withdraw funding and support from anyone who opposed him. Nixon had antagonized black voters many times during his career. He had a moderate labor record, and a pretty good environmental and consumer record, but he made his reputation as an opponent of desegregation, an opponent of state funding for urban school districts, and as a law-and-order candidate tough on (black) criminals.

John McDaid is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.

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