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We need solidarity in the voting booth as much as we do on the job

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Charles W. Jones
International President Emeritus

Gains we make at the bargaining table can be nullified by actions of Congress or Parliament

In 1995, Canadian Boilermakers working in the railroad industry learned a lesson they will never forget - and neither should you.

These members of our union were proud to be represented by a union which has represented Boilermakers working on railroads for over 100 years. They looked forward to retiring on a Boilermaker pension.

But the government of Canada had other ideas. Parliament decreed that all railroad workers in Canada must be represented by the same union. Overnight, these 750 Boilermakers were forced to leave the union they had chosen to represent them — forced out not by some greedy multinational corporation, but by their own elected federal government.

Here is the lesson, and I hope none of us ever forgets it: Anything we gain at the bargaining table can be taken away from us by our elected leaders.

Anything.

Governments have nearly absolute power over their citizens. Fortunately, in a democracy, the people retain the power to vote them out of office if we don't like the way they are leading us.

That is why your International works so hard to keep up with what is happening in Washington and Ottawa and in state and provincial capitals. That is why we study candidates, publicize their voting records, and make recommendations. That is why we strongly encourage our local lodges to work with their state and local AFL-CIO COPE offices to keep abreast of proposed laws in their states and candidates for local offices. That is why we publish information on legislative issues and on candidates for office in the Boilermaker Reporter, on our web site, in the Boilermaker LEAP FAXes, and in other publications created to keep our members informed.

And that is why we urge every member of our union to register to vote, to study the issues, and to vote in their own best interest.

Your vote is the only power you have to convince our elected leaders that they must look out for you and your families.

Yet despite all our efforts, we find that many of our members aren't registered to vote. Many of them don't know anything about the candidates who are running for office in their areas. Many of them never go to the polls.

And worst of all, many of them go to the polls and vote for candidates who do not represent working families Ð candidates who have announced in their campaign speeches and their press releases and on television and in the newspapers that they oppose unions, that they want to privatize Social Security, that they think OSHA rules should be relaxed, that they believe the 40-hour week should be scrapped, that they believe it is all right for American corporations to move their factories overseas and do away with American jobs in the name of global competition.

In the 1998 election, we made great progress in reaching some of these members. Voters from union households were a significant factor in removing some of the most anti-worker members from Congress.

And Boilermakers made a big difference. But the Republican Party still holds a majority in the House of Representatives, and that means a lot of our pro-worker legislation will not even come up for debate.

In the House, the majority party elects the Speaker, and the Speaker has enormous power. He decides who will be on each committee. He decides who will chair each committee. And he decides which bills come to the floor for debate, when they come to the floor, and when they will be voted on.

Think about that power. If the Speaker opposes a bill, he can simply leave it off the calendar. As a result, the House will never debate it. Even newspapers and television will never discuss it, because the media only report on what Congress is debating. They don't go out and ask Americans what laws we want; they just report on what bills are being discussed in Congress.

Social Security privatization is a good example. Few Americans are for it, but Republican congressmen back this approach, so it gets in the news.

Sixty percent of Americans support removing the cap on earnings subject to the Social Security tax, so that high-income wage earners would pay this tax on all of their income, not just the first $72,000, according to a September 1998 poll. This option would make up 69 percent of the projected deficit, but you never even hear about it on television or in the newspapers.

The media only report on bills that the Speaker is willing to put on the calendar Ð Republican-sponsored bills to privatize the trust fund. No other solutions are discussed.

Without support from the Speaker of the House, pro-worker bills simply do not have a chance to get through the House. The best thing American workers can do for themselves is to elect a majority of Democrats to the House of Representatives so that the next Speaker will allow our bills to come to the floor for debate and vote.

I wish there were another way. I wish there were more Republicans like our legislator of the year, Jack Quinn. But he is clearly an exception to the rule.

The Republican Party is dominated by pro-business candidates who do not support workers' issues. As long as the Republican Party holds the House and the Speaker is a Republican, pro-business bills will get preferential treatment in getting on the calendar.

Pro-worker bills will be kept off the floor as long as possible.

If you want the House to talk about strengthening Social Security and Medicare, not cutting benefits or privatizing it, you need a Democrat in the Speaker's chair.

If you want universal health care instead of HMO "reform" that won't even allow us to sue HMOs when they cause us harm, you need to get Dennis Hastert out of that office.

If you want the House to take workers' issues seriously, to debate bills that protect workers on the job, strengthen OSHA, raise the minimum wage, and protect your right to organize unions and bargain collectively, then you need to put a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives in the elections in November 2000.

There is no other way to get workers' issues on the House floor.

Reporter  V38N3
Published on the Web: June 14, 2007

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