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.