Teamsters-A Matter of Trust
The Rising Tide

Big Bosses, Big Money

Why unions are waging war against their own members and the GOP

By F.C. Duke Zeller
(F.C. Duke Zeller, director of Communications and official spokesman for 14 years at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, served as government liaison for the union during the Bush administration. His controversial book, Devil's Pact: Inside the Teamsters, will be published early this fall.)

From my front-row seat inside the marble palace of the Teamsters union, sitting in the shadow of the Capitol dome, I witnessed a 15-year parade of Democratic politicians slinking hat-in-hand into the headquarters of America's largest union. Each came seeking a hefty slice of DRIVE PAC- -the Teamsters' abundant political war chest.

DRIVE, an acronym for "Democrat, Republican, Independent Voter Education," was the brainchild of Jimmy Hoffa, who created the PAC in the late 1950s as a way for the union to buy political respectability. But it was under Jackie Presser, who rose to the Teamster presidency in the mid-80s, that DRIVE reached preeminence in the murky world of big boss-controlled union PACs.

"Money talks" and "money is power" became Presser's twin themes as he relentlessly crossed the country, exhorting the rank-and-file members to give to DRIVE. "I'm going to drain those poor suckers of every last dime," Presser privately boasted. Yet his ceaseless stumping for DRIVE was not motivated by pure politics; Presser hoped that all that cash would give him personal cachet with congressional Democrats who, in turn, could help dismiss Presser's pending trial for embezzlement and quash an ongoing investigation into his alleged mob ties.

Presser's efforts eventually propelled DRIVE to the top of the nation's PACs; during the mid-1980s, the Teamsters outranked the American Medical Association and the National Association of Realtors in terms of total dollars raised and the amount spent on political campaigns. And when the Teamsters' newly minted political power was heralded by the media, the Democratic parade line from the Capitol to the marble palace grew long indeed.

Former Rep. Tony Coehlo (D-Calif.), then majority whip of the House, was one of the first in queue, receiving $100,000 from Presser for the House Democratic Caucus. No sooner had word circulated around the Capitol of Coehlo's score on behalf of the House Democrats than the Senate side came calling, in the person of Alan Cranston, Senate majority whip.

Presser was hesitant to give to Cranston; personally, he couldn't stand the California Democrat, calling him "phony and aloof." Eventually, following a private lunch with Cranston in the marble palace, Presser relented, giving the Democrat the $100,000 he sought.

For all the money that poured in and out of the Teamster's PAC (between $10 million and $15 million was raised each election cycle), however, DRIVE never paid off as it should have for the membership. The Democratic leaders, so eager for the union contribution, quickly forgot the Teamsters on nearly every important economic issue.

Conservative membership, liberal bosses

Economists have long known that American workers and union members do best when the economy is fit and taxes are trim. Democratic leaders, however, have always felt they could satisfy the needs of union workers simply by throwing them a few crumbs in the guise of selective labor initiative votes. But when it comes to important meat-and-potatoes issues--the issues that literally put food on the union worker's table-- labor's liberal friends consistently vote government instead of people.

Year after year, Teamster and independent polling has confirmed that jobs, taxes and the economy are the biggest concerns of the union's 2 million working men and women in every region of the country. What's more, those polls today reveal that a majority of union members support the Republican initiatives as set forth in key congressional votes. In a spring poll conducted by Luntz Research, 87 percent of the 1,000 union members polled supported welfare reforms that require recipients to work and limit the time they can collect welfare checks. Moreover, 82 percent supported a constitutional amendment requiring Congress to balance the budget each year, and 72 percent supported tax reductions, including a $500-per-child tax credit. But labor's big bosses continue to cozy up to their liberal allies in Congress, making their political partnering hopelessly out of step with the desires of their own rank and file.

Not long ago, I sat in the posh surroundings of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees listening to one of their communications spinners expound on their current political strategy. He said that, nationwide, the membership had supported the Republican Contract With America. Now, however, the towering task looming before the union leadership was how to herd the membership back into the Democratic camp.

Although the union officer's open admission of politically manipulating the membership was surprising, the fact that the majority of government union employees had backed Republican candidates in 1994 came as no surprise. Regardless of their leaders' alliances, rank-and-file union members have always been in the mainstream of the nation's electorate, strongly supporting economic programs that work to maintain the American family and its traditional values. But for decades labor's big bosses have set their own agenda, trading quid pro quos with their liberal cronies in Congress to the benefit of only their own careers. The real concerns of the common worker are lost in the dealing, while the bosses concentrate on protecting their own turfs and on maintaining their big offices, salaries and extravagant perks paid for out of members' dues. What those members receive in return is a handful of supposedly key labor votes that amount to nothing more than window dressing.

The battles ahead

Now, America's union bosses have banded together in a seek- and-destroy mission against the Republican Party that will prove to be the most costly political assault in the history of organized labor. That four out of every 10 American union workers supported the GOP in the 1994 election is of no concern to the big bosses; they're out for blood, fighting desperately to preserve their lavish lifestyles at the expense of union workers everywhere.

Spearheading the opposition forces is the Goliath of the American labor movement, the AFL-CIO. Now, the federation has launched a massive, across-the-board attack on Republicans, firing away with issue-oriented radio and television advertising paid for by funds accrued through a special assessment of its 13 million members. Labor leadership is careful to point out that the mandatory tax is not an increase in dues, just a bigger assessment for critical "political education, training and mobilization efforts." The huge sum of money--$35 million--being pumped into the AFL-CIO's mobilization effort, focusing initially on 75 House Republican incumbents, goes above and beyond the considerable PAC money normally spent by the federation and its 78 affiliated unions during an election cycle.

In 1994 alone, labor union PACs collectively gave $42.3 million to candidates, 95 percent of which went to Democrats. Hundreds of millions more were invested in "membership education programs" and in-kind services designed solely to combat Republicans.

Now, in the all-important '96 election, the AFL-CIO will be pouring an extra $500,000 into each selected congressional race against targeted Republican incumbents--a figure that exceeds by nearly $100,000 the average cost of a congressional race in 1994.

It should come as no surprise that America's union bosses are suddenly roused to action. The big bosses have been fully awakened by their own members' continuing clamor in support of the GOP's overall blueprint for the nation, opening their eyes wide only to find that their once blindly loyal members are no longer buying the big bosses' political assessment of the world.

Their secret weapons: Dollars and Democrats

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, elected last year to restore labor's strength, is seeking to turn America's venerable House of Labor into the Democratic National Bank, offering huge cash infusions to Clinton and his entrenched liberal cronies in Congress as well as any Democrat willing to take on a freshman Republican. While Sweeney and the AFL-CIO have already pledged to spend $35 million of federation funds before Election Day, one knowledgeable union representative told me that, in actual funding, that figure is a mere pittance of the final number. "I expect they will dole out, excuse the expression, close to $400 million before it's all over," he said.

This election year, in addition to wheelbarrows of cash, the entire AFL-CIO will be literally on loan to liberal candidates, including the use of federation staff, technology and information systems. In an election statement, the federation's Executive Council boasted: "We will commit every resource at our disposal...To get this job done, the labor movement must mount an effort of unprecedented scale, with every union doing its share by contributing ideas, money, staff, media and materials." The federation is even planning a summer campaign to hire more than 1,000 college students to bolster its own highly developed political campaign staff.

As one AFL-CIO insider confided to me, "Ninety-eight percent of the effort around here until November 5 will be in electing our friends, our candidates."

With all attention turned toward the coming elections, it's little wonder that union members complain bitterly about union bosses being out of touch with them. And while the union bosses may claim that their avid campaigning is really on behalf of the membership, many union workers are disenchanted, if not enraged, over the bosses' exorbitant efforts to buy the election. As one member stated simply and succinctly: "I have joined a craft union, not the Democratic Party."

The Luntz poll confirms the rising indignation of the rank- and-file union members: Nearly 60 percent said they didn't feel this was a worthwhile way for national labor leaders to spend the members' dues; 62 percent opposed the AFL-CIO's mandatory assessment on their wages, the funds earmarked for defeating Republican candidates in November; and a staggering 78 percent didn't know they had the right to a refund of dues spent on political election activities--with 56 percent saying they were likely to request a refund.

Only 22 percent of the union members polled said they usually follow the political advice and views of their leaders--understandably, considering 44 percent of those polled regarded themselves as conservatives, 32 percent moderates and only 18 percent liberals.

Clearly, union's big bosses are philosophically out of step with today's union workers. Ron Carey of the Teamsters, the so-called liberal reformist, has spent nearly all of the union's general fund and is now fiercely resented by a membership incensed not only by his self-aggrandizing dalliance as a real-estate tycoon investing in posh resort properties but also by reports of his alleged mob associations.

Among big labor bosses, Carey is just one of three "C" leaders whose venal actions have infuriated the very members they supposedly served. The second "C," Ed Carlough, who ruled the Sheet Metal Workers for more than 20 years, resigned in disgrace when a federal investigation uncovered rampant abuse of union funds and property--from flying off to exotic locales aboard the member-financed private jet to paying his mistress hundreds of thousands of dollars (drawn from union dues) to decorate the Sheet Metal Workers' $1.9 million "conference center" (in reality, a lavish home that also served as Carlough's personal residence).

But the king of the big union "C's" is Arthur Coia, the millionaire head of the Laborers, recently the subject of investigations by Newsweek and Reader's Digest and long suspected by the government of mob ties in Rhode Island. Yet, since becoming one of Clinton's "best friends" (the president, who sends Coia notes signed simply "Bill," presented Coia with one of his own personal golf clubs) the Justice Department's demand for Coia's removal as president of the Laborers has been dropped. Coia, in turn, has become one of Clinton's biggest fundraisers, co-chairing the huge $12.5 million Democratic bash held this past May in Washington. Coia has even personally contributed to Clinton's legal defense fund, retaining the same pricey Washington law firm as the president to defend him in his own ongoing legal problems.

For his favors, Hillary Clinton granted Coia and the Laborers an appearance at the union's Miami convention. (Hillary was warned, however, not to meet privately with Coia by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes.) As their association continued to grow, Coia donated $100,000 to one of Hillary's pet charities, the National Botanical Gardens.

At the same time Coia was shelling out the big bucks for the Clintons, his own union was spending less than 1 percent of moneys collected (including dues assessments) on the Laborers' principal member activities: organizing and collective bargaining.

Many union workers have raised the issue of whether the AFL- CIO, in pursuing its PAC-happy ways, is violating federal campaign laws that restrict spending on behalf of specific candidates. The union bosses, however, have so far successfully skirted the law by using generic ads not expressly advocating the election or defeat of a particular candidate. Yet it remains to be determined whether a special assessment of members is, in fact, a compulsory contribution intended for political purposes and, as such, need not be supported by the members. But as long as the bosses are intent on keeping their cozy Clinton connection and throwing members' dues at any liberal running against a Republican, they'll surely devise a new means to circumvent the law.

Providing the slingshot

If the Goliath of the union bosses is to be brought down, then David--America's union workers--must step forward and with a unified voice publicly affirm what their leaders have continually suppressed: That regardless of what union's bosses might declare, the workers themselves support the Republican goals of cutting taxes, balancing the budget and controlling entitlements--all of which do more for union families than any single labor initiative that liberals could invent.

The campaign of '96 must focus on reminding American workers of the commonality they share with Republicans; both groups are trying to establish an economic environment that will enhance all workers and their families. As John Boehner, the astute chairman of the House Republican Conference, noted, "I think we need to show union members they are a lot more in touch with us than they are with the union bosses in Washington."

Rep. Boehner is now leading the fight to counter big labor's costly and misleading advertising campaign by revealing just how little has been accomplished--and often made worse--for America's workers by the combination of Democrats, big bosses and big union bucks. That, in fact, the indebted conditions, job losses and burdening taxes that workers are suffering today are the true results of that alliance.

What is needed to back up Boehner's efforts is a truth squad of honest American workers to travel the country exposing the "big lie" of the big bosses while personally empathizing with union workers fed up with the extravagance of their leaders and with the high taxes and out-of-control spending of big government. Hundreds of courageous union members are now waiting, ready to set the record straight and willing to join forces with the Republicans whose agenda they support to help enlighten their brothers and sisters to the failures, misappropriations and negligence of the Democrat union bosses.

This would be a dynamic example of pure labor "political education"--firsthand and real testimony from actual workers. To fellow workers around the nation, the squad would bring meaning to election-year economic issues, strength to countering the claims of the union bosses and could specifically underscore the importance of the TEAM Act (Teamwork for Employees and Management), which would let workers themselves give their approval for companies to form management and worker groups to solve problems.

If the American worker is the real David, the only one who can truly face the lies of the big bosses and bring down the Goliath of the American labor movement, shouldn't we at least provide him with the slingshot needed to get the job done?

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Copyright © 1996, Republican National Committee

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Rising Tide July 1996Volume 3/Number 5