When George Bush’s Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao insulted labor leaders at their Executive Council meeting on Feb. 26, it was an intentional act that signaled an all-out offensive against workers by the administration.

Previously, Bush had courted some labor leaders – especially the Teamsters, who responded by recommending Republican candidates in the past elections. The Bush anti-labor strategy, then, was “divide and conquer.” Now, it is “attack and destroy!”

Here is what happened with Chao, as recently recounted by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney:

He had met with Chao prior to her appearance at the Executive Council meeting. Sweeney alerted Chao to the fact that union people are concerned about the administration’s efforts to push revisions in labor/management reporting. Chao cited a local teacher’s union in New York as an example of corruption. Sweeney told her, “Elaine, if that’s the direction you’re going, everybody supports putting bad apples in jail, but you have the national union, the American Federation of Teachers, that never has these kinds of allegations.”

During the question and answer session afterward, several union leaders expressed disappointment with the administration’s push for reporting regulations that would consume huge amounts of union resourses in impossibly complex bookkeeping requirements.

After Machinists’ Union President Tom Buffenbarger expressed his opinion, Chao pulled out a list of Machinists’ locals that had experienced charges of corruption. She viciously attacked the entire union, even though the cases she cited were instances in which the union itself had ferreted out the problems and called for punishment of the officers involved.

In recounting the story, Sweeney said, “As far as I know, the Machinists are a union with the highest of integrity … I’m sure every organization has some bad apples, but I don’t know of any in the Machinists’ union.”

He went on, “I have served on the AFL-CIO Executive Council for 22 years. I have met and worked with every Secretary of Labor over those 22 years … I have never met a more anti-worker, anti-union Secretary of Labor than Elaine Chao.”

Sweeney summarized, “They clearly are trying to go after us in every way they can.”

The silver lining to the angry cloud of administration hostility toward labor is that high levels of unity are being created. Teamster President Jim Hoffa, who has been criticized in the labor movement for having supported Bush on more than one issue, was really angry after Chao’s performance at the Executive Council.

The Chao affair was only one in a string of new indications of top Republicans’ animosity toward working people. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) fronted a National Right to Work Foundation fund-raising letter accusing “Big Labor Bosses” of using national security worries “to grab more power.” He suggested that unionists were unpatriotic and would compromise national security. After the contents of the letter began to be known, the outcry was so irresistible that even DeLay renounced it!

In George Bush’s home state, the Texas Legislature distinguishes itself by its attacks against labor. First-term State Rep. William “Bill” Zedler (R-Arlington) filed House Bill 1550, which the Texas AFL-CIO described as “union-bashing, Paycheck Deception legislation.” The bill would require labor unions to obtain annual written permission, using language prescribed by the state, from every member to use dues for “political purposes.” It would proscribe not only electoral activity, but also issue advocacy, get-out-the-vote activities, publication of political views, and mere attendance at social or political events.

Union officers who did not comply with Zedler’s edict would face a stiff fine and up to 180 days in jail!

Texas AFL-CIO President Joe D. Gunn said, “This proposal would impose an ultra-expensive burden on unions to obtain written proof of what we already know from national polling: that the vast majority of union members approve of the political activity of their unions. This bill would muzzle organized labor for partisan political purposes. To the many other corporations and organizations who enter the political arena, I say this: ‘Today it’s us. Tomorrow it’s you!’”

Another Texas bill would specifically cripple the organizing efforts of the state’s educators by making it illegal for school employers to take union dues directly out of paychecks. A complete list of anti-union legislation currently being proposed in the Texas legislature would be too long for any publication.

State and local governments, by and large, are following the lead of the Bush administration and the anti-labor organizations that provide its ideology. The gloves are off. The mask is off!

Jim Lane is a World correspondent and labor activist from North Texas. He can be reached at pww@pww.org