Posted on Sep 20, 2007
John M Grau
Last year at this time members of the NECA Political Leadership Council (PLC) met with U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. Ms. Chao dropped by the PLC meeting being held at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. Among other subjects, she asked if we would like to hear about her department’s enforcement efforts against unions. She told us how the department was cracking down on reporting requirements under the 1959 labor-management act and forcing union bosses to detail all their expenses and any benefits received from management.
Of course, we were already familiar with the new DOL initiative. While we are all for honest and ethical behavior in the labor-management arena, our experience has been that these particular regulations were excessive. They mostly amounted to a paperwork nightmare and a potential liability trap for union employers and union leaders alike.
The members of the PLC were very forthright in telling this to Secretary Chao. They pointed out that the new enforcement efforts made it a potential criminal offense to fail to report inviting the local union business agent to a chapter dinner meeting or picking up the tab after a labor-management negotiating session – items that would be routine for any other businesses. When it became clear to Ms. Chao that our group wasn’t in a union-bashing mood, she politely thanked us for inviting her, turned on her heels, and marched out the door.
The PLC is meeting again this week in Washington, and as far as I know, Secretary Chao hasn’t been invited to drop by for another chat. Instead, the PLC members may hear about one of the budget battles brewing in Congress. The White House has requested an increase in the Dept. of Labor’s enforcement budget to about $57 million, a 20 percent increase over last year. The Democratic-controlled House has scaled that amount back to $46 million. Meanwhile, President Bush is threatening to veto the broader spending bill that contains the labor budget in part because it doesn’t include the full requested amount for the union oversight office.
The fight seems to be less over dollars and enforcement and more about payback for or protection of unions, depending on your party’s perspective. (To my mind, the Department should focus on true criminal behavior, not counting how many cups of coffee were purchased during a meeting with the local business manager.) But whatever the outcome, we’ll be watching to make sure that NECA contractors don’t get caught in the crossfire.
I’m grateful for the commitment our PLC members have shown by participating in the Summit. It’s their faces and their stories as constituents that make the difference in how a representative may vote on an issue. The PLC and ECPAC have given NECA a pretty loud megaphone on Capitol Hill. Secretary Chao may not have wanted to hear what we told her, but that didn’t stop us from speaking up.