"Insulting" and "condescending" comments by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao so angered union leaders at last week's AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Florida that even those unions that have been largely supportive of President George W. Bush -- the Teamsters and some building trades -- are now expected to oppose his reelection.
"It was clear that the secretary of labor came to a meeting to which she had been invited prepared for an adversarial confrontation," said CWA President Morton Bahr, one of the 54 members of the federation's Executive Council who attended the session.
"It was pretty unbelievable," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, quoted in The Washington Post and other media. "She was angry at points, insulting at points. I said that in all my years in labor, I've never seen a secretary of labor so anti-labor."
The Post reported that Chao "shocked the group by opposing any increase in the minimum wage, showing no sympathy for retired steelworkers who lost pension benefits, and reciting a list of legal actions her department has taken against unions and their leaders."
Bahr said Chao brought a looseleaf notebook with her that reportedly was filled with pages of union wrongs and "went on the attack." He said no one denies that there are problems on occasion: Unions aren't unlike other large, multi-layered organizations in that all have individuals at times who are accused and sometimes convicted of financial crimes.
But he said Chao's assault on unions was way out of proportion, that she was obsessed with isolated incidents within unions while seemingly unconcerned about the billions in corporate crime that have had devastating effects on workers and retirees.
Chao further angered the labor leaders by presenting a list of those who had been quoted in the press criticizing President George W. Bush about Iraq. Bahr said it appeared to be an intimidation tactic.
"I was particularly stunned because I've known Elaine Chao since 1992 and was partially responsible for hiring her for the United Way of America," he said. "She never showed any anti-union animus then, so I have to assume she's under pressure from the administration."
Leo W. Gerard, international president of the Steelworkers, whose members have been hit hard by layoffs, told the Post that "We were made to feel like we were the enemy" and described Chao's attitude as "very condescending."
"Even the symbolism was outstanding," he said, noting that she requested a podium and a riser to stand on, rather than sitting at the table with the union leaders as past labor secretaries have done.
For leaders of the building trade unions and the Teamsters, who have been far more supportive of the Bush administration than other unions, Gerard told the Post the experience has returned them to their Democratic Party roots. "Before, there were some concerns about our solidarity, but there were none after that," he said.
As for Chao, she told the Post the meeting was "a very frank and productive discussion."