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GOP and Labor: Strange Bedfellows?

Aired May 14, 2001 - 19:30   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight, James Hoffa in the Bush White House. Is the Teamster Union chief jilting the Democrats after backing Al Gore?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE, International Brotherhood of Teamsters general president, James Hoffa.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Guess who was at the Republican White House today? Labor leaders. Relatively friendly labor leaders. No, John Sweeney and other big guns of the AFL-CIO were not invited and were not present. On hand were representatives of 22 unions, mostly in the building trades, to talk to Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao about something they seem to agree on: energy.

With the report out Thursday from the Cheney energy task force, the labor leaders seemed to be impressed by plans for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and for building new electric power plants, including nuclear plants. That means new jobs for union members, including Teamsters.

The Teamsters president, James P. Hoffa, was there, and Douglas McCarron of the Carpenters Union later had a private meeting with Vice President Cheney.

The Teamsters last year endorsed Al Gore for president as did nearly all unions. So is Jim Hoffa changing sides? Or is he now playing the political field? -- Bill Press.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: President Hoffa, good to have you this evening.


PRESS: In the first 100 days of his administration, President Bush has signed a bill that junks the ergonomic rules protecting workers. He issued an executive order which ends the preference for union companies in federal construction. He's demanded the so-called "paycheck protection" as part of campaign finance reform, which, of course, would destroy the unions. And he's also said they're going to allow a lot more trucks with Mexican truck drivers coming up across the border from Mexico. This guy is clearly anti-union. Why are you crawling in bed with him?

HOFFA: Well, we're not crawling in bed with anybody. We disagree with the administration on a lot of issues. Today, we talked about, you know, what we're doing with regard to the energy crisis in the country.

We don't -- never said that we agree with them on his position on cross-border trucking or ergonomics or some of the other issues raised, as you said. But what we are talking about is a new problem we have in this country that's been accumulating over a period of time, and that's the energy crisis right now.

We've got $2 gasoline. We've got to do something about that. And the conversation today was really about what do we do about that, and the administration outlined a broad program of what can be done with regard to building new sources of nuclear energy, sources of electric energy, using fossil fuels, giving credits on automobiles. And this basically was a program that would involve the unions doing a lot of this work.

And we think that it's something should be talked about. It's the beginning. We haven't seen the whole proposal. But we are open to discussions with regard to this issue.

PRESS: Now, tomorrow you're going to be -- I want to talk to you about one element of that ANWR in just a second. But tomorrow, you're going to be giving a speech at the National Press Club. Your office was kind enough to send over to us an advance copy of your speech.

You're going to say, among other things tomorrow -- I'm quoting you, sir -- "Some 600,000 of our members turn a key in their vehicles every day, as do tens of millions of Americans." Clearly, one of the biggest sections of the elements of this energy crisis are today's high gas prices, higher than they were last time, last summer. What did Dick Cheney tell you today he's going to do about gas prices now?

HOFFA: I don't think he has any short-term answers. He's going to start addressing this problem with regard to new production.

I made the point that this is taking $38 billion out of the pockets of our working people, out of Teamster pockets, out of working families, and it's something that has to be addressed. It's a real problem.

$38 billion that's coming out that's not in the economy. So I think it's a crisis. We've got to address it. And perhaps, we made the first step today.

NOVAK: President Hoffa, the aides at the White House say they would like you and the other labor leaders who were there go up on the Hill and sell their plan to the members of Congress, including some Democrats, not only on the electric power plants but on drilling in the ANWR and Alaska. Are you going to help them on that? HOFFA: Well, we've already committed to ANWR. I mean, we believe that the ANWR project is something that will create 25,000 jobs. It will create a new source of oil that can help us become more independent of foreign oil. We think that's something that we will lobby.

Now, with regard to this energy bill, we haven't seen the whole thing and we've made no commitment in that regard. But with regard to the first part, about ANWR, we're convinced that this is something that does not hurt the environment.

And one of the things about ANWR that I think people should understand is they're not going into the refuge and going all over the refuge. They're going into an area...

NOVAK: A small part.

HOFFA: ... of 2,000 acres. They call it a footprint. And it's a relatively small piece of this park. And the way to understand it is to think about Dulles Airport. It's 1/5 the size of Dulles Airport, is the area where they're going to drill. So it's a small footprint. They're going to come in and do it in the wintertime. They're going to have ice roads. There's going to be no incursion with regard to the tundra and they can drill rather surgically. And I think it's something we can do.

NOVAK: And ANWR is the size of the state of South Carolina.

HOFFA: That's correct: 19,000 acres.

NOVAK: Now -- now, another factor, another phase of the administration program is very well thought of by some of the building trade unions, who would get a lot of jobs out of it. And that's getting back into the business of stepping up the construction of nuclear power plants: clean type of power. You know, the greenees like Bill don't like nuclear power. They think something is evil on it.

What about the Teamsters? Would you be for a stepped-up nuclear power program?

HOFFA: We discussed that today, and the feeling was amongst the building trades that nuclear power is something that has been neglected. Over 20 percent of our energy in this country is generated by nuclear power. In Europe, it's 35 percent. In France, it's 75 percent.

NOVAK: So you're for that?

HOFFA: We're for it. We think that we can build these new reactors in a safe way. America has been scared off of this idea. It's a source of relatively economical energy that we can use. And I think it's time to get back to the new.

There hasn't been a reactor built in 20 years in this country, and I think we ought to start doing it again. PRESS: Mr. Hoffa, I strongly disagree with you on ANWR, as you know. I mean, we're drilling in 95 percent of the Arctic right now. I don't know why we can't leave 5 percent of it aside.

But I want to come back to your figure of this 25,000 new jobs you keep -- you keep using. I mean, that is based, as you know, on an American Petroleum Institute -- consider the source -- study, which is 10 years old. And that study says that there is so much oil in ANWR that there would be this huge economic boom down here, and all these new jobs for truck drivers.

We now know there's only a six-month's supply of oil, at the best, at ANWR. So, sir, your figures are just phony figures on 25,000 new jobs, aren't that?

HOFFA: These are the figures that we have, that our people in Alaska who really know the situation, what they've given us, that they believe that we will not only do the drilling, but we will be all the trucking involved. There will be pipelines involved. There will be refineries. It's all the ancillary things that go along with this operation.

So it's not just the drilling of the facility, but it's going to be all the trucking and pipelines that come with it that will involve a lot of trade work.

PRESS: Well, I'm an environmentalist. I'm also a proud union member. And I don't think there has to be any conflict between the two.

Let me suggest in the energy area somewhere else that you could look for constant, recurring, permanent new jobs. In fact, I'll let Mr. David Hawkins, who's with the Natural Resources Defense Council, make the point.


DAVID HAWKINS, NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL: Well, the president is saying that we need to drill in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in order to find oil. But there's much more oil under Detroit than there is under the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.

If we improve the fuel economy of American vehicles to what is being produced overseas, say 40 miles per gallon, we would deliver more oil to the American consumer than five Arctic Wildlife Refuges.


PRESS: Now those are jobs. Why don't you push them for those jobs? They may be auto workers. You can organize them and get them into the Teamsters and you save the environment?

HOFFA: Well, I think that conservation is an important part of what we're talking about. More fuel-efficient cars. But you're not going to change the way people live in this country. We don't to have a Europe where people pay $5 a gallon and only the rich have big cars. In this country, there's an egalitarian thing about, you know, economical fuel that we can all have cars and we can all get to work. And I don't want to get away from that.

I think it's important that we have this resource, that we have affordable energy in this country, and that's got to be our basic goal. I don't think energy can solve this problem. We are not building refineries. We've gone away from nuclear. We've basically gotten away from fossil fuel.

We -- you know, everywhere I go we burn coal. Why aren't we doing more of that? With the new scrubbers they have, they've been able to make this so it's relatively clean.

NOVAK: I'd like you to hear a different view on conservation from a member of the Senate who I think is one of the real experts on this subject, and that's Larry Craig of Idaho. Let's listen to him.


SEN. LARRY CRAIG (R), IDAHO: We can't conserve our way out of this one. We know that. California is a perfect example of a state with the highest conservation of any, and yet they're in the greatest crisis.


NOVAK: Do you agree with that?

HOFFA: I don't think -- I think we should all conserve. I think the big three and the automakers should do more with regard to more economy with regard to cars. I think we should maybe turn our lights off at night and not be so free with this.

But we can't conserve ourself out of this crisis. I do believe that it's a problem that's going to take more ability to convert the oil that's available into something we can use, and that's refineries, that's nuclear, that's fossil fuel.

NOVAK: Now, California has gotten itself into a mess, and the governor says it's not his fault. And he says it's somebody else's fault.


GOV. GRAY DAVIS (D), CALIFORNIA: This is America, and while everyone believes in the profit motive, and while I've been strongly pro-business, you don't charge $1,900 a megawatt-hour for something that last year you charged $30 for. That is obscene.


NOVAK: Now, you're a labor man, you've been a labor union man from the time you were born.

HOFFA: That's right.

NOVAK: You agree with that, that this whole problem is these terrible capitalists gouging the consumer?

HOFFA: Well, I think that we have to look at all the problems. I think that legitimately, there is a problem with -- there's not enough oil being refined in this country, but I also think we have to watch out for enormous profits.

We don't want to go through and do all this, and have the profits go to the big oil companies. I don't think -- this is a national crisis, and I think everybody has to tighten our belt. But one thing that I don't want to go along with -- I don't want to build these refineries so that these big oil companies can hold the oil back, and we'd still have $5 gasoline. Another words, the bottom line here...

NOVAK: So, you agree with Davis on that, Governor Davis?

HOFFA: Whatever he said. I think what we have got to work is to work to get the prices back down so that the average family can afford this, they can get to work, they can live their lives.

And I don't want to have any price-gouging. I think we got to watch to make sure these big companies that are making a lot of money right now, that they don't gouge anybody, and I think that's an important thing.

PRESS: President Hoffa, we have a lot more questions for you. We are going to take a break, then we'll be right back. There are, of course, some political overtones to all of this discussion. And when we come back, let's get right to it.

Will today's meeting at the White House with the leaders of organized labor bring about a crack between the political ties between organized labor and Democrats? We'll find out when we come back.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. For the teamsters, today's not the first sit-down with Republicans in the White House. The union actually supported Ronald Reagan for president. And last year, they were the last major union to endorse Al Gore, after flirting with George Bush and even Pat Buchanan.

So, will their support for President Bush's energy policies lead to direct political support for Bush and other Republicans? And might other unions follow? We ask the general president of the teamsters union tonight, Mr. James P. Hoffa -- Bob.

NOVAK: President Hoffa, the element of the Bush energy plan that you like -- the drilling in Alaska, electric power plants, nuclear power plants, creating jobs -- these would have been opposed, not even proposed by a President Gore. You think you made a mistake in endorsing Al Gore?

HOFFA: No, I don't think so. At the time, I think that's what we wanted to do. Al Gore was our candidate. He spoke positively on a number of other issues that Bush didn't speak of, with regard to working families and what we are going to do with regard to minimum wage, and a number of issues.

So, I don't think we made a mistake, but now we have President Bush in there now, and we're opening up ourselves to talk to him. We want to be players over the next four years, and I think that organized labor cannot just sit this one out. We have to be active. We have to engage the White House. And if we can, we can talk to them. If they can listen to us and where we are coming from, perhaps we will understand each other better.

NOVAK: Well, the leader of the AFL-CIO -- and the teamsters, of course, are now back in the AFL-CIO -- John Sweeney, the president, takes a totally different position. He takes the position that labor is hand and glove with the Democratic Party. He has no interest in going to the White House, or being part of this administration. Do you think Mr. Sweeney is making a mistake?

HOFFA: Well, I don't speak for John Sweeney. But what I do think is that the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) unions that were there today want to listen to this plan to see if there's something in it that can help American labor, that can help working families, that can lower the price of gasoline in this country, I think they're engaged -- and I think it's important.

And I encourage the White House to reach out to labor, because we have to be working there. We want input into this administration.

NOVAK: I know you don't speak for John Sweeney, but the question was, do you think he's making a mistake in his attitude of being such an integral part of the Democratic Party and not being a little bit removed, as you are?

HOFFA: Well, like I said, that's up to John Sweeney. I don't think it's up to me whether I say yes or no. What I think is, we have to engage and we want to engage among trade, we want to engage among minimum wage, we want to engage among issues that cover working families and teamsters, and these are the issues we are concerned about. And the more input and interaction we can have, the better.

PRESS: But President Hoffa, you're a skilled politician, you know what's going on. I mean, the White House -- I admire their strategy, but it's clear what they're trying to do. They're trying to divide you from your other friends in labor, the service unions.

So, they're trying to divide you from the Democratic Party. They're trying to divide you from the environmentalists, and can bring up this big fight between labor and environmentalists. Aren't you just walking right into their trap?

HOFFA: Well, I don't think so. Like I said, we just had one meeting today, and I think that we want to start interacting with the White House.

I don't know if this means anything as far as future politics or future endorsements. We are talking about the problem that faces America today, and we were engaged by the White House to talk about the issues. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Maybe this will lead to other input with regard to trade, minimum wage, Davis-Bacon, project labor agreements, other things that worry and concern our members. And I think that's what we want to do, and there's nothing wrong with that.

PRESS: All right. I want to go back to your speech tomorrow, all right? Again, just to quote a couple of things you are going to say. You say at one point: "We've been battered by" -- teamsters -- "by one assault after another, such as trucking and airline deregulation, trickle-down economics, anti-worker legislation, NAFTA and other so-called free trade agreements."

You also say: "Many of labor's traditional friends have abandoned working families on issues such as PNTR for China, fast-track authority and ergonomics." President Hoffa, George Bush is on the wrong side of every one of those issues. Wouldn't you have to agree when it comes to the gut issues affecting working men and women, the Republican Party is the enemy of organized labor?

HOFFA: That's why we have to talk to them. We have to here...

PRESS: So you agree.

HOFFA: They have to hear our side of where we are coming from. The White House and the Republican Party have to open up so that they have input for real working families. Teamsters, operating engineers, carpenters, other unions, to know where we are coming from.

They want to hear us on trade. They should be hearing us on trade. They should be hearing us on the environment. They should be hearing us with regard to PNTR.

Look at PNTR! We fought that battle. And when I talk about people who abandoned us, I talk about a lot of Democrats that abandoned us with that regard. And everything we said about China, it came out to be true, with regard to our -- holding our crew over there, and arresting Americans...

PRESS: But do you really think they will change their stripes? That's what I am asking.

HOFFA: We will find out. But we can't do it, if we're not talking to them.

NOVAK: Mr. Hoffa, the Teamsters Union, as Bill mentioned in his introduction, supported Ronald Reagan, they were very close to the Republican White House in the 1980s. Now this is something that you can comment on. Do you think your own union made a mistake in doing that?

HOFFA: Going back? I wasn't here back then. Whatever they got out of it, I don't know -- to some extent, I guess they had a lot of preferential treatment from those in the administration. What we are looking for is engagement as a union. We want to be close to them, we want them to hear what our members are saying, what the teamsters are saying, what working families are saying about the country, about how we have to have fair trade, how we have to stop these give away trade agreements that are sending literally a million jobs to the Third World. That's what we want to be heard on.

We want to be heard on minimum wage, we want to be heard on issues that affect working people in this country. We can't do that if we're sitting outside the White House. So, if we can get in the White House and talk to them, hopefully they will listen, and we will have some input over the next four years.

NOVAK: Mr. Hoffa, the AFL-CIO came out very strongly against the nomination of Linda Chavez for secretary of labor. Succeeded in getting her derailed. They came out against the nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general. Didn't succeed there.

And the word is, AFL-CIO is going to be fighting hard against the Bush nominees for the federal bench. They've had 11 judges coming up. Were you against Chavez and Ashcroft? Did you work on those cases? And will you be fighting the confirmation of these judicial nominees?

HOFFA: What we did, we were not involved in the Linda Chavez thing. But we were involved in Ashcroft. We thought he would be good attorney general. We have not taken any position regarding these 11 judges. We don't know anything about them. We haven't had the chance to do any research, and I doubt we will be lobby...

NOVAK: You take your own course then, right?

HOFFA: We take our own course. We are not bound by the AFL-CIO by telling us what to do. We will look at each on a case by case basis.

PRESS: On last question, President Hoffa. The Teamsters have had some problems in the past with organized crime, even under a consent decree for the last 12 years. I think it's clear the consent decree has helped clean up the union. It's also clear the union has new leadership, has democratic elections now, is ready to stand on its own.

I'm just asking you, is this support for Bush's energy policy maybe a quid pro quo for getting rid of that consent decree?

HOFFA: I don't think so, but it is time for the government to get out of our union. It's cost us $100 million, and we've done everything we can to clean this union up. And it's time for government to move on, and to get out of our union.

NOVAK: Thank you very much, President Hoffa. And good luck on your speech tomorrow on the state of the teamsters union.

HOFFA: Bill's already read it.

(LAUGHTER) NOVAK: And Bill Press and I -- both are labor unions members. We will be back with closing comments.


NOVAK: Bill, I know it's hard for you to understand, but Jim Hoffa is an old-fashioned labor leader who doesn't think that his union should be in hock to the Democratic Party. It should be independent.

And also, he feels his union members should be able to drive nice cars: not little putt-putts, while your green friends drive around in their limousines.

PRESS: Actually, there's some very nice cars that get excellent mileage, Bob. You're wrong again. You know what's going on. You mentioned today, most people there today are from the building trades. I love the building trades. These are the real working stiffs, and they're all for jobs at the same time. They're not going to be misled by these Republicans.

They know, when it comes to the bread-and-butter issues -- minimum wage, striker protection -- the Republican Party's against them. They are not going anywhere.

NOVAK: They may go further than you think. I think some of these building trade unions, not necessarily the Teamsters, have really put it on the line to President Bush: If you really push for these nuclear power plants, we will be with you. And their word is their bond. Be frightened, Mr. Press!

PRESS: I'm not going to be frightened, because they know Bush won't be with them on the other issues. From the left, I'm Bill Press, good night from CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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