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Ochenski: The State of the Unions

Why is labor getting in bed with Republicans and the energy lobby?


Faced with the Republican domination of Congress, the Montana Legislature, and the Governor’s Office, a recent spate of events seems to indicate that organized labor has at last been successfully split in two. At issue is the dumping, or at least cooling, of labor’s time-honored affiliation with Democratically aligned interests, followed by its rather surprising efforts to seek favor with Republicans and energy corporations. That the union camp has been divided and conquered will undoubtedly reap benefits for Republicans and their pals, but the long-term outcome for organized labor is much less clear. By weakening both themselves and their former allies for short-term gains, the unions may ensure long-term Republican and corporate control. And that, in the end, may cost them their existence.

On the federal level, President Bush made a politically astute move to follow up the release of his national energy plan by meeting with 30 labor leaders. Bush wants support for his energy proposals to expand coal, oil and gas production, and to construct new pipelines, transmission lines, and nuclear, gas, and coal-fired power plants. This would bring significant employment to trade unionists, and at least some of the national union leaders have pledged support for the plan. In a National Press Club speech following the presidential meeting, Teamsters President James Hoffa enthusiastically endorsed the Bush-Cheney plan—including the proposal to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for gas and oil—and dismissed environmental concerns.

Closer to home, last week’s union convention in Butte saw Don Judge, the long-time AFL-CIO leader, replaced by former legislator and lobbyist Jerry Driscoll. The debate between the two men pitted Driscoll’s past lobbying activities for corporate interests, such as Montana Power Company (MPC), against Judge’s close ties to the Montana Democratic Party. The seeming certainty of a bloc vote by the now-combined unions of the Montana Education Association and the Montana Teachers’ Federation swung the issue in Driscoll’s favor; Judge pulled out of the race before voting began. In large part, Driscoll’s victory appeared to be based on his willingness to work with Republican Gov. Judy Martz and the Republican Legislature.

And through it all, energy policy seems to have played a part in these local events, just as it drove the decisions of national union leaders. In the recent legislative session, Don Judge and the AFL-CIO joined environmentalists, senior citizens, ag organizations, large industrial users, and a host of other interests to support energy legislation that would have put union workers back on the job and implemented some important consumer protection measures. However, the bill died in the final hours of the session when MPC (for whom Judge’s successor worked) and the Governor’s Office weighed in against it. Like President Bush, Montana Republicans are seeking supply-side solutions, hoping to build and consume our way out of the affordable energy dilemma that was brought about by their own decision to deregulate electrical utilities. Now, it looks like the new head of the AFL-CIO may well wind up siding with Gov. Martz and the Legislature in the name of finding “market solutions.”

Environmentalists, for one, cannot be happy. Although the labor-environment relationship in Montana has had its ups and downs, for the most part Montana labor and enviro leaders have gone out of their way to support each other as much as possible for the last three decades. Recent examples include unionists and environmentalists supporting the Clark Fork Superfund clean-ups, which have resulted in good construction jobs as well as a restoration of the area’s environment. But what happens when oil and gas drilling projects threaten the Rocky Mountain Front, or the coal-bed methane industry puts ground and surface waters at risk? Will it be industry first and foremost? Will jobs alone—or the revenue they produce for special interests—be worth any risk to future generations? And if the AFL-CIO, like the Teamsters, decides to marginalize environmental concerns, how many enviros will then cease to support labor?

Or how about taxes? What happens when the next proposal for a sales tax pops up? Will the AFL-CIO, long the leading opponent of a sales tax, decide to support it if it benefits their education constituency? Will the new AFL-CIO leadership back a move to bust the Coal Trust for university or infrastructure funding if it promises to provide millions of dollars for construction jobs?

And finally, how will the Democratic Party fare as the unions, their long-standing allies, announce their intentions to just become fair-weather friends? Thanks to the economic chaos resulting from the follies of free-market energy policies, the Demos have their best chance in a decade of taking back leadership of the state, and perhaps Congress. Under the Bush-Cheney-Martz energy plans, never have the distinctions between which party stands for consumers and which party stands for conglomerates been more clearly defined. Yet, at this moment of opportunity, one of the Democrats’ crucial resources, the power and numbers of organized labor, may be deciding to cut that affiliation and walk the path of pure self-interest.

The answers to the thousands of questions resulting from the recent union decisions in Washington and Montana will eventually be answered as the implications from the state and national energy plans play out. Like their new corporate buddies, organized labor may decide to bet the house on short-term gains—at the expense of long-term friends. But rest assured, when the worm turns and the corporate bottom line finds union contracts to be more of a burden than they’re worth, labor will go looking for those friends once more. Unfortunately for them, and Montana, it may be too late.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski contributes to the Missoula Independent as its political analyst.

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