A simple one-sentence e-mail brought to an end the “complex series of events” that culminated in the announcement that Jerry Driscoll, the controversial executive secretary of the AFL-CIO, would not seek re-election as the leader of Montana’s largest union. As Lee Newspapers’ senior political reporter Chuck Johnson wrote, it is “a move that could have statewide political ramifications.” For his part, Driscoll told reporters he was “sick of all the B.S. Let somebody else do it.” And indeed, if anything defined Driscoll’s tenure at the union’s helm, it was plenty of B.S.
Indy readers may recall a column in this space, almost exactly four years ago, that featured Driscoll’s surprising coup over longtime union chief Don Judge. At that time, with Republicans controlling virtually the entire state, Driscoll was touting his willingness to work with the traditionally anti-union party—thus abandoning longstanding ties to Montana’s Democrat party.
Right out of the chute, Driscoll announced the end of union opposition to a sales tax. This, in and of itself, ran directly against the grain of everything the AFL-CIO had ever said about the regressive nature of a sales tax: that it taxes the poor the same as it taxes the rich. But since the poor, by definition, have less money than the rich, the tax is a heavier hit on those who can least afford it. Blowing off the union’s longstanding commitment to progressive policy, Jerry Driscoll told then-Gov. Judy Martz: “We’re not saying no to anything.”
Nor did Driscoll’s new vision for Montana labor end there. Prior to his takeover of the union, Driscoll had gone through the revolving door from legislator to lobbyist—the same door Gov. Brian Schweitzer has vowed to close with his push for tougher ethics laws for elected officials. Formerly a Billings legislator and president of the AFL-CIO, Driscoll had risen to the position of Democrat Majority Leader in 1991. But it was during the ’91 session that Driscoll achieved the dubious distinction of garnering not one but two DUIs, and shortly thereafter left elected politics for the smoky backrooms inhabited by industry lobbyists.
More than a few folks found it strange that an AFL-CIO president would suddenly become a corporate lobbyist, but that’s just what happened when Driscoll went to work for none other than the Montana Power Company (MPC). Although now defunct, MPC was one of the real political powers of the ’90s, culminating in the infamous and ill-fated late-session passage of utility deregulation in 1997. As most Montanans now know, it was the de-reg move by MPC and its Republican cohorts that led to Montana’s loss of its hydroelectric generating facilities to an out-of-state megacorporation. When the dams went, so did the state’s abundant cheap power, which until that time had been the sixth lowest-cost power in the nation.
Driscoll’s tight ties to the utility industry far outlived his former employer, however. In a series of moves that literally slashed bonds with longstanding allies, Driscoll shattered Montana’s unique “blue-green alliance” that had seen labor and environmentalists standing shoulder to shoulder on a broad range of issues. When companies ran shoddy operations that poisoned workers, it was often environmentalists who joined unions to force compliance with regulations. When environmentalists fought spurious energy projects, it was often unions that weighed in to demand fly-by-night energy companies hire union firms—even going so far as to shut down scab operators.
When Driscoll took over, he didn’t just ignore the union’s environmental friends, he attacked them, siding time and again with energy corporations to build new facilities at virtually any cost. Polluting the environment? Not a problem as long as whatever speculative project happened to be on the drawing board at the time created some kind of union jobs.
In essence, he was a man for his time, embracing the Jurassic perspective and policies of Gov. Judy Martz that would willingly whore Montana out to the highest corporate bidder, no matter the long-term consequences.
But as all Montanans know, that time has now passed. The election of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat majority in the Senate, and a tied House brought the disastrous run of Montana’s Republican rulers and their corporate cronies to an inglorious end.
Driscoll, perhaps not yet ready to believe the worm had turned, continued to support efforts by the major utilities and their legislative pawns during the recent session, but enjoyed little success. Not yet willing to face Schweitzer’s “new day,” in which corporate lobbyists no longer control the governor’s office, Driscoll broke the camel’s back with the final straw—he committed the AFL-CIO to join WETA, the Western Environmental Trade Association, which never saw a mine it didn’t like, a coal plant it didn’t love or an environmentalist it didn’t hate.
In the end, it was joining WETA that finally brought Driscoll down, as the unions he supposedly represented rejected membership in a group that had done little for labor.
The tide began to turn with a resolution from the University Faculty Association at UM that repudiated WETA, saying the association had “aggressively attacked cornerstone public health and environmental laws enacted for the protection of all Montana’s citizens…supported candidates opposed to those endorsed by the Montana State AFL-CIO…attacked citizens rights to redress in court,” and “led the charge to cripple the Montana Environmental Policy Act” resulting in “more red tape, lawsuits, and loss of jobs.” When two other unions, including the AFL-CIO’s majority membership MEA-MFT, weighed in against the WETA move, the writing was on the wall for Driscoll. Saying: “I cannot win, I would lose the teachers and laborers,” Driscoll finally tossed in the towel.
The future leader of Montana’s labor unions will be determined at the AFL-CIO’s May convention. But for now, it’s Driscoll’s denouement.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.