Former White House aide Chuck Colson was many things to many people, but few ever think of him as an economic policy maker. Yet Colson -- inadvertently -- probably had as much to do with determining the shape of Richard Nixon's 1971 wage control program as any economist involved in development of the president's New Economic Policy.
Although Colson's involvement in the economic development process was brief and behind the scenes, his actions served as the catalyst for mobilizing labor's opposition to the presiden't program.
Colson's economic policy contribution basically consisted of a single phrase ina statement issued by then Labor secretary James D. Hodgson accusing AFL-CIO President George Meany of being "out of step with the working men and women of America." Hodgson had issued the statement -- at the White House's request -- because Nixon's political advisers were disappointed in Meany's initial criticism of the president's wage-price freeze.
Armed with public opinion polls taken immediately after the Aug. 15 announcement showing over-whelming support for the president's action, the White House advisers were covinced the time was right to bring Meany "into line." It was this decision that led to Hodgson's statement just days after the economic freeze was announced.
The statement infuriated Meany. As a Hodgson aide lamented later: "He got off his butt and made himself available for talk shows and private interviews and press conferences, he was all over town. If hsi people were not in step with him, he was damned well going to get them in step."
The result of Meany's attack came two months later with a public White House surrender to labor on the shape and makeup of the Pay Board which was to govern the wage controls program. George Shultz, a Meany favorite and then the director of the Office of Management and Budget, handcarried the surrender document, boldly initialed by Nixon, from the White House to the AFL-CIO headquarters where Meany gleefully showed it to a waiting news cenference.
The Chuck Colson Story seems an appropriate reminder as Priesident Carter and George Meany prepare to meet at the White House today to talk over the administration's latest anti-inflation program.
By most accounts, the president and Meany have a hard time sitting in the same room together, let alone having a rational discussion of political economics. But Meany and Carter themselves may be the least of the problem.
The real problem seems to be the growing distrust between the aides of the two men. There are increasing indications that the staffs of both men see each other as the enemy. And with emotions running high at the staff level at the start of a major new round of union contract bargaining, the potential for trouble is enormous.
Much like the Nixon staff, the current White House staff appears to have little knowledge or feel for labor relations. Furthermore, many in the White House seem convinced that organized labor is no longer a major factor in American politics.
In the two years since Carter has been in office, for example, the White House has been able largely to ignore the trade union movement with little consequence. As a result, there seems to be a feeling that labor can be bypassed in any effort to develop a wageprice program to curb inflation.
But history indicates this could be a major mistake.
Organized labor has been a key to every government attempt to control wages through either mandatory controls or voluntary guidelines since World War II. And the latest government attempt at an incomes policy seems no exception.
Without at least some cooperation from organized labor, the White House has little hope of curbing inflation. Labor has just begun a major new, three-year round of contract bargaining, and any showdown with the White House is apt to kill the president's new guidelines program. The one thing the president cannot afford is a labor strike against the government.
Therefore, the tone of today's Carter-Meany meeting will be as important as the substance.