Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Linda Chavez, the co-author (with Daniel Gray) of the new book, Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics.
FP: Ms. Chavez, welcome to Frontpage Interview. And congrats on your book being #2 on Amazon non-fiction and #11 overall.
Chavez: Thank you Jamie.
FP: Illuminate briefly for us the union influence on elections. How large is it and is it coming from the “hard-left”?
Chavez: Unions represent the largest source of unregulated--in some cases, illegal-- money in politics today. Not only did unions contribute $90.1 million directly to the Democrats in 2000, they also spent $46 million in a grassroots’ effort to mobilize Democratic voters, registered 2.3 million new union household voters, made 8 million phone calls and distributed $14 million leaflets in the workplace, but they also spent untold millions for paid union staff to work directly in Democratic campaigns.
Most of this money comes directly out of the dues of union members—usually without their permission or even knowledge. Some estimates put the amount unions spend each election cycle in the range of $500-800 million. It’s almost impossible to know the exact figure because unions do not have to disclose in any detail how they spend their money (unlike publicly traded corporations, which have to release detailed financial statements and abide by strict auditing rules). What’s more, most unions don’t pay taxes on that portion of their dues spent on politics, even though they are required by law to do so. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest and one of the wealthiest (almost $350 million in revenues in 2002), claims it spends zero on politics, yet the NEA maintains a staff of 1,800 political operatives, more than the combined staff of the Democratic and Republican National Committees combined.
This year, the unions will spend even more than they did in 2000. The AFL-CIO has committed some $44 million to a “beat Bush” effort. One New York City local of the Service Employees International Union has pledged $35 million to defeating the president—not one penny of which will be spent in New York, where the union’s members live and work, because New York is safely in Kerry’s column.
Much of the reason for this increased political activism among the unions has to do with the changing composition of the labor movement itself. While unions have been losing members overall over the last five decades (from a high of more than one third of all workers in the mid-1950s to only about 13 percent today), public employee union membership is sharply on the rise. Less than 10 percent of workers in the private sector belong to unions, but almost 40 percent of government workers do. The shift to government workers in the unions has also accelerated the unions’ leftward lurch, especially under the leadership of AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, who proudly proclaims his membership in the Democratic Socialists of America. Under Sweeney, the AFL-CIO has largely abandoned its social conservatism and staunch pro-defense views.
FP: In other words, the Democratic Party is being financed by illegal funds? Tell us technically about the illegality.
Chavez: Unions may give money they collect through their PACs to support political candidates and-- until McCain-Feingold banned it-- they could give “soft-money” donations from their treasuries as well, but these must be reported. In addition to such direct contributions, unions may also assign staff to political campaigns so long as they interact exclusively with union households, and they can set up phone banks, voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, print campaign brochures and other campaign literature, so long as all such “voter contact” is with union households. But unions routinely flout these laws, as I witnessed firsthand when I worked at the American Federation of Teachers from 1974-1983.
During election season, the AFT would set up phone banks in union headquarters, but instead of calling only union households, paid union staff used Democratic voter registration and other general population lists to make calls. The costs of this contribution in staff time and equipment vastly exceeded campaign finance laws at the time. In 1980, when I was editor of the AFT’s publications, I was asked to print tens of thousands of extra campaign brochures extolling Ted Kennedy’s education record and then deliver them directly to Kennedy headquarters when he was running for president in Democratic primaries against incumbent Jimmy Carter.
In 2000, I received a call just before the election urging me to vote for Al Gore and inquiring if I needed help getting to the polls. My phone “caller ID” alerted me that the call came from “LCLAA,” an acronym I was very familiar with from my days in the labor movement: the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the AFL-CIO’s Latino outreach group, which was confirmed when I called back the number recorded on the caller ID. I suspect the union operatives got my name as a newly registered voter in Virginia and assumed that with my Spanish surname, I was a likely Democrat voter. Since our book Betrayal has come out, we’ve received numerous emails from union members who tell similar stories of union officials using union halls and paid union staff to contact voters on behalf of Democratic candidates.
The money for these activities comes directly out of union dues, yet members have little say in—or even knowledge of—the uses to which their dues are being put. When Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao issued new regulations giving the public greater access to how unions spend their members’ dues, the AFL-CIO sued and federal judge issued an order earlier this year to stop the regulations from going into effect for at least one more year, making it impossible to get the information to members during this election cycle. About 40% of union households vote Republican, by the AFL-CIO’s own estimates, so obviously these members don’t want their money going to support politicians they oppose. But even Democrat union members may not want their dues going to political activity rather than the core purposes of the union. In our book, we outline a series of legislative steps that must be taken to ensure that unions cannot continue to siphon off their members’ dues for politics and to guarantee greater disclosure of union revenues and expenses, including audits by independent auditors using the Generally Accepted Accounting Practices required of corporations.
But political corruption isn’t the only form of fraud and abuse we expose in Betrayal. There’s plenty of old-fashioned graft and embezzlement that occurs on a daily basis at some unions, and some unions aren’t above busting heads if they think it will help their cause. Even when they get caught red-handed, their Democratic patrons can sometimes keep them out of jail.
FP: In your chapter “An Affair to Remember,” you tell a great story about Bill Clinton and his ties to a mobbed up union president —a story readers won’t get from Clinton’s "My Life." Could you give our readers a sneak preview?
Chavez: One name you’re not likely to see in Bill Clinton’s book index is Arthur A. Coia, the former president of the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), even though Coia was a frequent guest at the White House and a major contributor to Clinton and the Democratic Party.
Clinton tried to appoint Coia to the president’s Council on Competitiveness but when the White House submitted his name to the FBI for clearance it set off alarm bells because Coia was about to be indicted for labor racketeering. Investigators hurriedly wrote the White House that “within the next several weeks” the Department of Justice “will accuse Coia of being a puppet of the LCN [La Cosa Nostra].” The White House dropped the idea of appointing Coia to the Council on Competitiveness but Coia continued to hobnob with Clinton and his wife—more than 120 recorded contacts occurred, including chummy visits to the White House residence to watch NBA playoff games with Bill—despite repeated warnings from the Justice Department.
Meanwhile Coia kept writing checks, much of it from the union treasury not its political action committee, to the Democrats, $4.8 million in Clinton’s first four years in office. The mobbed up union president’s investment paid off. Coia ended up with a get-out-of-jail-free card that staved off his indictment when the Justice Department signed a one-page agreement with Coia that allowed him to avoid prosecution and keep his job as head of the union—just days after Hillary Clinton, against prosecutors’ recommendations, traveled to Florida to address a LIUNA convention. But Coia couldn’t keep his hands out of the union cookie jar. In 2000, Coia was found guilty of tax evasion for failing to pay taxes on three expensive Ferraris he purchased. His plea agreement forced him to step down from his job as LIUNA president, but not to worry—he got to keep his $250,000 annual salary for life!
FP: Is there any hope in minimizing the influence of the hard-left in this context? What can be done to stop all of this corruption?
Chavez: The only way to stop the corruption that goes on with union money in politics is to restrict unions from spending union dues on anything but the core purposes of the union: collective bargaining, grievance and contract administration, and organizing. Unions should have the same rights as other organizations to collect voluntary donations for use in political campaigns, so long as every penny the collect and donate is publicly disclosed. And unions should not be allowed to assign paid staff to political campaigns, just as corporations are forbidden to do so now.
Unions should also be subject to yearly, independent, audits of their financial records, which would go a long way to preventing the scandalous cases of abuse we talk about in our book, including millions of dollars in money stolen by union bosses to fund lavish lifestyles. One teacher union president was recently convicted for stealing $5.6 million from her union, money which she spent on furs, couture clothing, and Tiffany tea sets, among other things. Another teacher union president stole at least $3.5 million from his union, which he used on first class round-the-world excursions, jewelry for his wife, and several sessions at the Sinclair Intimacy Institute so he and his wife could share “Better Relationships, Better Sex.”
All of us, not just union members, end up paying for this corruption. As the FBI notes on its website, “FBI investigations over the years have clearly demonstrated that labor racketeering costs the American public millions of dollars each year through increased labor costs that are eventually passed on to consumers.” We also pay for a corrupted political system that keeps in power those politicians determined to protect the union bosses who bankroll them.
FP: Linda Chavez, it was a pleasure to speak with you.
Chavez: And you, too, Jamie. Frontpage Magazine is one of my favorites.
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