Employee Free Choice Act draws focus on Capitol Hill
WITH A LABOR-friendly president in the White House and pro-worker majorities in both houses of Congress, one might have expected the annual conference of the Legislative Education-Action Program (LEAP) in Washington, D.C., March 15-20, to have been one big celebration.
Boilermakers did indeed relish the election victories. We took stock of the momentous shift in politics toward worker issues, and we recognized the efforts of top-performing lodges and individuals in making the Boilermakers’ union a political powerhouse.
Taking the podium, Intl. Pres. Newton B. Jones brought the Boilermakers to their feet with a simple statement: “You did great!” He was referring to the election of Barack Obama as president as well as other federal and state wins. Jones said the union’s efforts are already paying dividends, from labor-friendly cabinet appointments to executive orders reversing Bush’s anti-union policies.
While there was much to celebrate, there was also a lot of heavy lifting to do. Delegates received extensive briefings on legislative issues before meeting with members of Congress. They studied handouts, watched videos, and listened to presentations as part of an intensive political education process.
Bridget Martin, Director of Political Affairs, cautioned delegates that although battles were won in 2008, more battles are looming. “We can’t rest on our laurels,” she said. Mid-term elections are coming up in 2010, and labor will have an opportunity to build a filibuster-proof U.S. Senate. Also in 2010, 36 states will elect governors, the nation will conduct another census, and the states will redraw their legislative districts. Redistricting can make it easier — or harder — for worker-friendly candidates to win political offices. Since the party in control generally runs this process, electing labor-friendly state legislators and governors in 2010 is vital, Martin said.
The Department of Government Affairs (DGA) explained Boilermaker issues, with the Employee Free Choice Act receiving special emphasis. Abe Breehey, Director of Legislative Affairs, provided in-depth analysis of the proposed law. Throughout the week-long conference, delegates lobbied for Free Choice as well as for health care reform, a national policy for energy and climate change, preservation of defined benefit pensions, and expanded investments in shipbuilding.
To help inform and inspire the delegates, the DGA presented a diverse group of speakers, including a talk radio host, a governor (and the head of the Democratic National Committee), two U.S. Congressmen, and a political reporter.
Talk radio’s Schultz rallies delegates
KEYNOTE SPEAKER ED Schultz, a nationally-syndicated talk radio host, fired up delegates on opening morning, addressing the Employee Free Choice Act, health care, conservative talk radio, and other topics.
He called the Employee Free Choice Act “a defining moment” in American history. He urged delegates to remind members of Congress, especially Democrats, of the role unions played in getting them elected.
“If it wasn’t for unions [mobilizing] in this country — boots on the ground, resources to campaigns, social networking — Barack Obama would not be president of the United States,” he said. “It all started in 2006 [mid-term elections],” when union efforts helped put Democrats in office. Unions put nine senators in the United States Senate. How dare Democrats say they might not have the votes to pass the Employee Free Choice Act!
“You hold the future of this country in your hands,” Schultz told the delegates, “because you’ve had the guts to organize. You’ve had the guts to support health care and pensions and family issues and days off. All the things the conservatives attack, the union brothers and sisters of all unions have been willing to stand up for.”
Schultz criticized the use of wedge issues — such as gun control, abortion, and gay rights — because they distract voters from issues that affect jobs, pensions, and the economy. “Let me tell you something about wedge issues,” he said. “I’m a Democrat. I own more firearms now than I did when [President] Clinton went into office. They’re not going to take your guns.”
Editor’s note: Schultz now has his own television program, “The Ed Show,” broadcast weeknights, 6:00-7:00 p.m. (EST) on MSNBC. Visit www.edschultzshow.com for more information.
Gov. Kaine praises Boilermakers
“BOILERMAKERS HAVE A great presence” in Virginia politics, said that state’s governor, Tim Kaine, who addressed the LEAP conference March 17. Kaine is also the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
He said that although Virginia is a right-to-work state with low union density, labor there has nevertheless “been incredibly influential both in politics and in policy.” Labor’s support has helped shift Virginia politically in recent years, he noted. Virginians have elected two worker-friendly U.S. senators, including Jim Webb in 2006, and Mark Warner in 2008. Labor candidates have also made big gains in the state senate and state house.
Kaine recalled that it was Virginia that presidential candidate Barack Obama returned to on the eve of the election last November. “We were together at a great rally — President Jones and I — at Manassas in Prince William County. We were there together with 90,000 people. I think we all felt that... destiny was behind us. People want to change the direction of this nation.”
Kaine joined Pres. Jones in acknowledging the work of Cecile Conroy, Assistant Director of the Government Affairs Department, who ran the AFL-CIO’s political effort in Virginia during the last election cycle. “Cecile did a wonderful job,” said Kaine. “You saw both Cecile and Bridget [Bridget Martin, Political Affairs Director] out on the campaign trail all the time,” fighting for pro-worker candidates.
Kaine outlined the goals of the DNC. “We are the political arm of the president. On anything he is working on — the stimulus package, equal pay for women, or the budget — we are going to be out there with him, pulling the oar, organizing people, telling the story, fighting back opponents.”
He said a second priority is to “keep winning elections and to be strong,” not only at the national level but in each of the 50 states. “Labor has been the best partner that we’ve had in the Democratic Party, so in each state there has to be good ties between the parties and labor.”
Finally, Kaine said, the DNC needs to achieve both political and social change. “It’s not just about campaigns and Election Day, and campaign contributions. It’s about making effective change.”
Majority whip calls Free Choice ‘will of the people’
REP. JAMES CLYBURN (SC 6th), the House majority whip, told Boilermakers the Employee Free Choice Act reflects “the will of the American people.” He said he knows that to be true because the legislation was crafted by a Democratic majority representing a broad spectrum of America.
Clyburn said the Democratic caucus includes eight distinct groups, among them Blue Dogs [moderate Democrats], Congressional Black Caucus members, Asian-Pacific Islanders, Hispanic members, progressive Democrats, and “New Democrats.”
“We’ve got [in the Democratic majority] what this country is all about ― all of those experiences there in our caucus. And when you bring all of those together and you come up with a piece of legislation like the Employee Free Choice Act, we know that we are reflecting the will of the American people, because all of those experiences are there. And so we are confident the legislation is good.”
He said that what is needed now is to create an environment where the Employee Free Choice Act can get the support it needs in the Senate to become law.
“We’ll get this done,” he said, “not for us ― it ain’t about us. It’s for our children and grandchildren.”
Abercrombie runs for governor of Hawaii
NEIL ABERCROMBIE, THE U.S. congressman from Hawaii’s first district and a stalwart friend of the Boilermakers, spoke to the conference about his run for governor, energy independence, and the Employee Free Choice Act.
Delegates Keola Martin, Local 90 (Pearl Harbor) and Gary Aycock, Local 627 (Phoenix, which also represents shipyard and construction workers in Hawaii) escorted and introduced Abercrombie. Aycock called the congressman “honest, outspoken, and passionate about American workers. And that’s an understatement!” he said.
Abercrombie said one reason he is running for governor is that, “right now, in the state of Hawaii, we’re picking on the most vulnerable, while we’re worried that some thief at AIG [the insurance company receiving billions of dollars in bailout money] is going to get his full million dollars or 10 million or whatever. The aged, the blind, the disabled — they’re having their benefits cut; they’re being put on the street. And it’s not just Hawaii, it’s all over the country.”
An advocate for energy independence, he noted that Hawaii imports nearly all of its energy supplies while the nation as a whole is sending $700 billion a year overseas to purchase oil and natural gas. “We’ve got to go on offense [to develop domestic energy sources],” he said. “We’re going to put a bill out there that’s going to take the royalties and fees that come from domestic oil and natural gas extraction and invest it in jobs for this country.”
Abercrombie urged unions to develop a unity of purpose. “You’ve got to have people in Congress that are going to back you up — not just take your vote, but take your cause.”
Speaking about the Employee Free Choice Act, he said, “This isn’t about secret elections, it’s about whether you can negotiate in the first place. It’s about American workers having free elections, being able to choose a union if they want without being intimidated. That’s what we have to get across to people.”
Abercrombie said Boilermakers should tell their elected representatives they need to put it on the line for Free Choice. “You put it on the line for them last election, didn’t you?”
Political reporter offers insights
JONATHAN MARTIN, A reporter with Politico.com, an online political news group, told the conference about insights he gained on the 2008 campaign trail.
Martin spoke of several turning points in the presidential election. One of those, he said, came at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa in Nov. 2007, an event at which all of the Democratic presidential candidates spoke briefly. “Sen. Obama was the last one to speak, and he set the room on fire,” said Martin. “It was a watershed moment” that propelled Obama as a contender for the Democratic nomination.
Another turning point, he said, came on Sept. 15, 2008, when the Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, speaking in Orlando, Fla., stated that the fundamentals of the economy were strong. That was the same day Lehman Brothers collapsed and the economy began its plunge.
“From that point on, the economy became the dominant story,” said Martin. “We sort of knew where the race was going... and the McCain people knew it, too.”