Unlike communism and socialism, trade unionism has rarely inspired published “second thoughts” by embittered apostates. Those who turn against labor may be no less disillusioned than members of the “god that failed” generation or even our own indefatigable New Left defector, David Horowitz. But few ex-officials of an AFL-CIO affiliate end up penning renunciations over at the National Right to Work Committee. More typically, union turncoats just go to work for management and keep their mouths shut about it. Linda Chavez–a former labor editor and top assistant to Albert Shanker, late president of the American Federation of Teachers–is a rare exception to the rule.
Chavez parlayed her nine-year stint as an AFT staffer into a career as a syndicated columnist, Fox News commentator and radio talk-show host, after transitioning directly from Shanker’s “inner circle to the upper reaches of the Reagan Administration.” There, her first job was to muzzle the US Civil Rights Commission, as its controversial staff director. Later, she served as White House liaison to various constituent groups then being courted by Reagan. In 1986 she ran against Barbara Mikulski for a US Senate seat from Maryland, campaigning as a right-wing Republican and getting 39 percent of the vote. Her 2001 bid to become George Bush’s first Labor Secretary also ended in defeat. After Chavez neglected to disclose to the Bush transition team that she had actually done a good deed in her life–harboring an undocumented worker from Guatemala–her nomination flamed out amid media controversy over whether she had illegally employed her houseguest.
Being battered by the Washington press corps and then dropped like a hot potato by the Bush crowd was hard enough for Chavez to swallow. It has been equally galling that the opportunity to harass her former union colleagues from a high-profile perch went instead to a more privileged female, from a different ethnic minority. Elaine Chao’s elevation to Labor Secretary, as the President’s second choice, was aided by her marriage to a prominent Republican senator. Chavez, in contrast, had to win Bush’s initial favor through her own boot-strapping efforts in the fight against affirmative action and the minimum wage. The author’s simmering resentment and desire for revenge have boiled over into two related books. One is a political memoir and the other a lurid account of labor’s allegedly pervasive and “corrupt” influence over American life.
An Unlikely Conservative traces Chavez’s own rise from modest circumstances to Republican royalty. We learn that her mother was an “Anglo” divorcée from Wyoming who formed a “blended” family with Rudy Chavez, the hard-drinking, downwardly mobile descendant of wealthy Spanish merchants and landowners whose ancestral home included “much of…modern-day Albuquerque.” Only when Linda moved to Denver, where she attended high school and college, did she learn that “Mexicans were looked down on in Colorado–and that included me.” Chavez’s autobiography sheds new light on the liberal/labor gang-up that similarly surprised her in 2001–and thwarted her Cabinet ambitions. Initially, it turns out, there were unions, including her alma mater, willing to overlook her conversion to conservatism and support her nomination anyway.
I decided it was time to place a few calls to former colleagues and friends in the labor movement. With my name all over the papers, I had no trouble getting phone calls returned…. [It] was clear from several conversations that some officials welcomed my candidacy…. [A] number of union presidents wanted to be helpful, and none was more solicitous than Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
When Chavez soon found herself “caught in the media crosshairs,” her fair-weather friend Sandra “smelled blood in the water and had decided to join the sharks.” America’s “most hated Hispanic” did not enjoy being shark bait. Her memoir concludes with this ominous warning: “I may not have become the AFL-CIO’s worst nightmare as secretary of labor–but I intend to remain a thorn in their side.”
Written with Daniel Gray, former PR director for the National Right to Work Committee, Betrayal is, as promised, a follow-up thrust at unions inside and outside the Beltway. According to the authors, the AFL-CIO has become incurably greedy, violent, radical and a danger to the Republic because of the untold millions it spends, illegally, on Democrats. The Democratic Party, they argue, has become so indebted to “leftist labor unions” that the unions now exercise “veto power over its policy decisions and campaign strategies”–a revelation, I’m sure, to union backers of Dick Gephardt or Howard Dean this year.
Chavez’s memoir includes a brief critique of labor’s “partisan politics” but nothing quite so imaginative and wide-ranging as the indictment found in Betrayal. In An Unlikely Conservative, she reveals, for example, that she once personally engaged in such “secret activities” as delivering “several boxes of union-printed campaign leaflets to Ted Kennedy’s presidential campaign headquarters in 1980”–before voting for Reagan that year. Generally, however, Chavez has nothing but fond memories of her union work in Washington, during the halcyon AFL-CIO reign of George Meany and Lane Kirkland.
According to Chavez, their ally, Shanker, “expected two things from his employees: that they be smart and that they have ‘good politics,’ which consisted chiefly of being pro-union, anti-communist, and opposed to racial quotas.” After Big Al became AFT president, “almost all the leadership positions on staff” went to the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), whose alumni also wielded influence at the AFL-CIO as members of the hawkish Social Democrats-USA. Chavez’s proudest achievement was turning the American Educator, an AFT magazine, into “a conservative journal of ideas. Not only did we promote Shanker’s hard-line anti-communist views with articles critical of China, Cuba, and the Soviet Union, but we also took on affirmative action, ethnic studies, radical feminism…and the ‘nuclear freeze’ movement.”
Thus, by the standards, say, of David Horowitz’s youthful wanderings in the Marxist wilderness, very little of Chavez’s early career was squandered on causes she regrets today. Her brief flirtation with socialism–now recalled as “liberalism”–involved a political sect so anti-communist that its leaders ended up, like Chavez, on the right. After she leveraged her YPSL connections into an AFT job, she did display a certain subservience to a “union boss” herself–albeit a “true visionary” who transformed her “politically and intellectually.” But even while Chavez was collecting a big salary financed by AFT members’ dues, she at least tried to spread this “shakedown” money around among other neocons like Robert Bork, Thomas Sowell, William Bennett and Jeane Kirkpatrick–all of whom wrote for her union journal!
In Betrayal, the “pro-union” part of Chavez’s Shankerite politics is hard to detect. The book is a nonstop diatribe against all unions–clean and tarnished, militant and meek, democratic and undemocratic, liberal and conservative alike. It recycles every timeworn Reader’s Digest exposé of labor vice–from picket-line violence to project labor agreements–and depicts the labor movement as one big protection racket for criminally inclined layabouts. To put unions in their place once and for all, Betrayal seeks a legal crackdown that would leave workers even more defenseless than they are today. Among their “reform proposals,” the authors want to repeal the Wagner, Davis-Bacon and Fair Labor Standards acts; eliminate most union political activity; and expand anti-racketeering prosecutions to curb the “legalized terrorism” of strikes and contract campaigns.
The book’s accuracy is best illustrated by its repeated use of the adjective “big”–as in “Big Labor,” a term employed, by my count, no less than 150 times in 277 pages. Conservatives slapped this same label on their union foes in the post-World War II period, when there was some basis for it–a third of the workforce was organized and nationwide strikes were common in auto, steel, coal and other industries. Fifty years later–after the steady erosion of “union density”–organized labor represents only 13 percent of all workers and just 8 percent in the private sector. Yet somehow, in Betrayal, the bogyman of “Big Labor” still stalks the land. Based on any objective measurement–membership size, strike activity or degree of pattern bargaining–“Small Labor” is what actually exists in the United States. Unions today lack the muscle to inflict the economic “harm” for which Chavez blames them, even if “choking the golden goose” by socializing the economy was, as she claims, their actual goal.
This inconvenient reality explains why Betrayal dwells instead on alleged payroll padding, influence peddling and “mediocrity protection” in labor’s last redoubt, the public sector. But, here too, the reader enters a comic book “Bizarro World”–a parallel universe in which familiar people and institutions behave quite unlike their real-life counterparts. For example, politicians–who’ve often disappointed labor by supporting welfare “reform,” privatization, deregulation or trade liberalization–become, in Betrayal, fiery tribunes of the working class. To wit, Hillary Clinton: “Like many other leading Democrats, she has moved further to the left in her pursuit of high office, which undoubtedly pleases the labor movement’s radical leadership.”
Meanwhile, real left-leaning laborites are endowed with hidden influence not heretofore noticed by anyone else (except conservatives suffering from “Big Labor” phobia). In Betrayal‘s biggest reds-under-the-bed revelation, we learn that the political clout of Democratic Socialists of America didn’t peak twenty-five years ago, during the heyday of Michael Harrington. Instead, thanks to the group’s closet member John Sweeney, DSA now has a stranglehold over AFL-CIO policy and politics far beyond any imagined by Harrington in his wildest dreams. Whether in cahoots with DSA, the Congressional Progressive Caucus or what “has essentially become the U.S. Labor Party” (a k a the Democrats), Sweeney is portrayed as a kind of American Lenin, who “proudly preaches his socialist worldview.” Even now, the book suggests, he lurks in the wings of the Kerry campaign, waiting to seize power next January in the business union equivalent of a Bolshevik coup.
Unfortunately, Betrayal‘s depiction of union financial shenanigans is far more accurate and not at all funny. The book condemns multiple salaries (such as Sweeney’s own past double-dipping), padded expense accounts and profiteering by union insiders at the infamous Union Labor Life Insurance Corporation (Ullico). Before even getting to a chapter titled “Money, Mansions, and Mobsters,” Chavez and Gray flay the usual suspects–the Teamsters, Laborers and other construction unions, whose past or present racketeering problems have been widely publicized. (According to the authors, of course, “most newspapers bury stories about embezzlement and fraud among labor unions or don’t even report them in the first place”!)
Ironically, the most flamboyant thievery cited in Betrayal involves the Teachers. Recently convicted AFT kleptomaniacs in Washington, DC, and Miami managed to make off with an astonishing haul–more than $8 million worth of dues money misappropriated for housing, travel, luxury hotel stays, designer clothes, jewelry and other personal uses. Chavez implies, not implausibly, that these criminals were just emulating the lifestyles of the rich, if not famous, folks at union headquarters. In 2000, now-retired AFT president Feldman, who was then “the most powerful woman in the labor movement,” earned $354,000–as part of a perfectly legal total compensation package worth more than $525,000. That same year salaries for the union’s three top officers alone cost the members $1.1 million.
In her fatwa against union “fat cats,” Chavez barely acknowledges that others, better intentioned than her, have also inveighed against union corruption and bureaucracy–but then tried to do something constructive about it. After finishing Betrayal, any reader previously unaware of recent union reform activity would still never know that tens of thousands of workers struggled, for years, to challenge and change corrupt practices in the Mine Workers, Steelworkers, Teamsters, building trades and maritime unions. (An excellent history of those efforts, titled Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers: How Insurgents Transformed the Labor Movement, has just been published by Herman Benson, 89-year-old founder of the Association for Union Democracy and a more helpful ex-YPSL member.)
If Chavez had hoped to become–via her latest publishing venture–“the most-hated ex-union member in America,” she’s going to be disappointed again. With only a book, not a Cabinet post, as her bully pulpit, the author is definitely not labor’s “worst nightmare.” There’s too much corporate competition in that category, at the moment, for any right-wing scribbler to be a major contender. Among workers currently haunted by lost strikes, concession bargaining, privatization, deregulation, free trade, offshoring, outsourcing and virulent unionbusting, Chavez won’t even be noticed as “a thorn in their side.”