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By Dick Meister

By now, only the hopelessly naive could possibly believe that President Bush and his Republican cohorts in Congress are sincere in the praise for firefighters, police and other public service employees and working people generally that they've been mouthing since Sept. 11.

GOP members of Congress even blocked legislation that would have granted state and municipal employees the basic right to bargain collectively with their employers on pay and working conditions -- a federally-guaranteed right long held by most workers in federal and private employment.

Democratic sponsors of the bill had argued that, if nothing else, the heroic actions of firefighters, police and others in the aftermath of the September attacks earned them the right to the unionization that's denied public workers in 18 states and granted only in limited fashion in most others.

Although politically careful to laud the public workers' heroic acts, leaders of the Republican majority in the House that killed the union-rights bill trotted out the shop-worn argument of "states' rights" to justify their opposition. Why, said they, it wouldn't be proper for federal lawmakers to tell local lawmakers to grant their employees the same rights that federal law requires other local employers to grant the people who work for them.

What it amounts to, of course, is that the GOP is no less anti-labor now than it was before Sept. 11.

Nor are Bush and the party any less pro-business. That's glaringly obvious from their continuing shameless attempts to use the "War on Terrorism" proclaimed by the President as an excuse to add to the riches of the corporate interests they actually serve while pretending to act in behalf of ordinary citizens.

The most blatant evidence of that came in passage by the Republican-controlled House of a bogus "economic stimulus" bill that would grant billions of dollars in tax cuts to the country's richest corporations and individuals. Not surprisingly, the GOP-sponsored measure provided virtually no relief for others, including the hundreds of thousands of workers the corporations have laid off since the attacks.

Although Democrats have managed to block Senate approval of the of the bill, Bush and his GOP allies are continuing to push hard for it. Meanwhile, they have blocked passage of labor-backed legislation that would provide extended and improved Unemployment Insurance benefits, help pay for health insurance premiums and otherwise assist the laid-off workers.

Bush and friends clearly are not much interested in providing workers anything beyond politically self-serving lip service. Yet more evidence of that came in the Republican-sponsored measure that provided $15 billion in cash and loan guarantees to U.S. airlines, but no relief at all to laid-off airline workers.

You want shameless? To also have provided extra unemployment benefits and other help to the 150,000 aviation workers who've lost jobs, House Majority Leader Dick Armey argued, would "not be commensurate with the American spirit."

If Republicans had their way, the airlines would even have been allowed to continue using dangerously inept but low-cost private security firms to screen baggage rather than turning the job over to better-paid unionized federal employees, as Democrats advocated. The firms have been able to bid low on screening contracts because they are largely non-union and so could keep pay at or close to the legal minimum -- and, like the GOP's other corporate beneficiaries, contribute handsomely to Republican election campaigns.

But though GOP lawmakers failed to block transfer of baggage screening to federal employees, they did force a compromise that gave individual airports the option of switching back to private firms for screening after three years. The federal screeners, furthermore, will have limited union rights. They are prohibited from striking, for instance, and have less protection against arbitrary firing than other federal workers.

Thanks an executive order issued just recently by Bush, several thousand employees of the Justice Department's Criminal Division and all 93 U.S. attorneys' offices nationwide -- secretaries, paralegals, clerks and others -- have been stripped of their right to union representation, their union contracts torn up. Bush acted under a 1978 law that, while allowing the workers to unionize, also allows a president to deny that right in agencies that deal with "intelligence, counter-intelligence, investigative or national security work."

Administration spokesmen explained -- and with straight faces -- that Bush acted because unionized employees might keep their non-union attorney bosses from taking actions needed to better protect Americans. They actually claimed it would undermine national security if workers had a voice in determining their working conditions rather than having them imposed arbitrarily.

Bush also is trying to get the Customs Service and Border Patrol designated as "secure agencies," so as to deny their employees union rights too.

It's pure and simple union-busting, noted Carl Goldman of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- "a cynical attempt to use Sept. 11 to weaken unions."

The President already has fired all seven members of the Federal Service Impasses Panel that is the last resort for federal workers who have reached an impasse in bargaining with their employers but who of course lack the right to strike. The panel tries to forge a compromise agreement or, in extreme cases, dictates a settlement. Those named by Bush to replace the fired panelists naturally are anti-labor, headed by Becky Norton Dunlop, vice president of the notoriously right-wing Heritage Foundation.

Another Bush appointment that's rightfully angered labor is that of Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, as the Labor Department's solicitor or chief lawyer. Bush had delayed appointing Scalia because he knew he couldn't get Senate confirmation. But as soon as Congress recessed in December he named Scalia to the job as a "recess appointment," meaning he can serve in the job for a year without having to be confirmed.

Some choice to head a department whose function is supposedly to champion workers. Scalia is a corporate management attorney whose job has been to oppose labor in labor-management conflicts.

Scalia's anti-labor position was made most clear in his writings against the ergonomics regulations developed by the Clinton administration to try to protect workers from the repetitive stress injuries that are the most extensive of the many serious on-the-job hazards threatening U.S. workers. Scalia called the scientific studies that led to the regulations "quackery" and argued that the regulations would only burden employers with increased costs.

Scalia wrote that the regulations were adopted as "a major concession to union leaders, who know that ergonomic regulation will force companies to give more rest periods, slow the pace of work and then hire more workers (read: dues-paying members) to maintain current levels of productivity."

Talk about "quackery." And imagine, how terrible, making work easier and opening more jobs.

Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress have of course rescinded the Clinton regulations on ergonomics and, though Bush has promised to promulgate new rules, it's highly unlikely he will do so. The administration has in fact been easing job safety regulations in a wide variety of occupations and cutting funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Certainly there'll be no movement in the other direction from Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, another former management representative. Just about the only good thing labor might say about Chao is that she's not Linda Chavez, Bush's first choice for labor secretary. Cbavez' virulently anti-labor record, you'll recall, prompted such heavy opposition to her confirmation that he withdrew her nomination to the post.

Among the other Bush actions against labor count his executive orders blocking strikes at United, Northwest and Delta airlines.

The president and congressional Republicans are even opposing a proposed increase in the pitifully inadequate minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.

Corporations that rely on cheap, highly exploited non-union labor in poor countries also can count on Republican help. Bush, backed by most GOP members of Congress, is seeking so-called "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade agreements that would not have to guarantee any rights to workers.

There's more, too -- much more. Bush also has issued executive orders that ban so-called Project Labor Agreements under which federal contractors promise to follow union work rules in exchange for union agreement not to strike and has rescinded regulations limiting the granting of federal contracts to companies that repeatedly violate labor laws.

Bush tried to require contractors to post signs telling employers they did not have to join unions or, if they were members, did not have to pay fees that went to political activities regardless of whether a majority of the union's membership voted to financially support such activities. That at least was struck down by a court as violating the National Labor Relations Act.

Pressure from women's groups and Democratic House members forced Bush to back off from plans to close the 10 regional offices of the Labor Department's Women's Bureau which for 81 years have played a leading role in protecting and advancing the rights and conditions of working women.

There can be no doubt, surely, that the talk of working class heroes by Bush and his fellow Republicans is but a clumsy attempt at deception.

Copyright 2002 Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco who has covered labor and political affairs for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator.

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