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That Bush would side with business should be no surprise to anyone familiar with his record in Texas, and it is a tribute to his political skills that he made it two months into his presidency before his moderate rhetoric collided with his conservative instincts. On social issues, such collisions are inevitable. Last week, as the New York Times reported, Bush planned to ask the American Bar Association to drop its review of judicial nominees, long a sore spot for conservatives. But where business is concerned, Bush has often let Congress take the lead--and the heat. After banks, retailers and credit-card companies poured millions of dollars into both parties during the last election, the bill tightening the rules for consumer bankruptcy sailed through the Senate last week. And a week earlier, with an assurance that Bush would back them, House and Senate Republicans rolled back regulations protecting 102 million people from injuries caused by repetitive work in factories and at computer keyboards. Businesses argued that the regulations were too burdensome and expensive, although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimated that they would actually save $9.1 billion a year when the cost of wages and productivity lost to injuries was factored in. Bush didn't call a single lawmaker to lobby for the repeal, but House majority whip Tom DeLay thanked him anyway, attributing the victory to "the very fact that he was in the White House."
Most of the moves Bush has made against labor haven't attracted much attention. One of his first acts in office was to freeze restrictions that prevented the Federal Government from doing business with companies that have a record of violating labor laws. And on a Saturday in February--only three days after Labor Secretary Elaine Chao held a conciliatory meeting with the AFL-CIO executive council in Los Angeles--Bush issued four antiunion Executive Orders: two weakened labor's hand with federal contractors; another aimed to cut into its political power by reducing the amount it collects for political activities. "Put it together, and it's probably as antiunion a package as we've seen from anybody in the past 50 years," charges AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, who clearly knows how to turn a phrase into a battle cry. "George Bush makes Ronald Reagan look like Mother Jones."
Union officials say Bush's long-standing sympathy for business is not the only reason behind his aggressive stance. It's payback, they say, for their effectiveness in turning out union voters against Bush last fall. Exit-poll data support their claim that voters in union households provided the margin of victory for Gore in such battleground states as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. The United Auto Workers even negotiated a day off on Election Day, during which the union put 2,000 members to work getting out the vote for Gore.
In a conference call with state labor leaders last week, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney declared that unions should once again consider themselves on a war footing. Says Rosenthal: "We're going to start carrying that message into workplaces and make sure people are fully aware of it." Which is bound to make Republicans in moderate districts across the Midwest and Northeast nervous. Last week 33 House Republicans wrote Bush to protest one of his four Executive Orders. And bigger battles loom. The President said last week that he will sign campaign-finance legislation only if it requires unions to get permission from workers before using their dues for political purposes. Bush proposes to allow states to opt out of minimum-wage increases. And unions don't expect to see any friends among the three replacements Bush will make to the National Labor Relations Board this year.