The Issues Behind
Election 2002September 2002 IBEW Journal
Working Families Future on the Line
How are working families in the United States doing on issues before the U.S. Congress? The following is a summary of the major economic issues affecting IBEW members and their families that have been acted on by the Congress.
"Free" trade has been a major priority of the business community for decades. The negative effects of NAFTA and other trade pacts have been well documented as corporations have moved jobs out of the United States and Canada to Mexico, China and other places where labor comes cheap and laws and regulations to protect workers are a joke.
This Congress dealt a major setback to the interests of working people by restoring the so-called "fast track" authority to the president. Taken away in 1994, fast track allows the president to negotiate a trade agreement with another country and then submit it to the U.S. Senate for an up or down vote, allowing for no amendments. This authority prevents congressional allies of labor from adding meaningful worker or environmental protections to trade pacts.
Both the House and Senate passed the fast track bill in this Congress. In the House last December, the margin was excruciatingly closeone vote. In the Senate, the vote for final passage was by a wider margin. But the Senate came within a few votes of adding some significant protections to workers, only to fall short. The final bill offers only a token buffer of some unemployment and extended health benefits to workers who lose their jobs because of trade agreementshardly enough to offset the expected loss of jobs and potential devastation to communities.
"The advocates of trade that is undisturbed by labor and environmental protections cant hide the fact that their policies are taking a terrible toll on working North Americans," said International President Edwin D. Hill. "They have no problem with exporting jobs, and dont care about the people left to pick up the pieces trying to rebuild shattered lives."
Despite the crash of Enron, the scandal at energy giant Dynegy, the fallout from deregulation in California and the fact that states across the country are backing off deregulation, Congress is still leaning toward the market-based approach for the electric utility industry.
Where deregulation has been implemented, its legacy is chaos and high prices. Except in a few cases, the promised new generation is nonexistent. But advocates for more deregulation are regrouping, and their friends in Congress are cooperating.
The energy bill that passed the Senate last spring embraces deregulation. If ultimately passed (negotiators are working to produce a compromise from versions passed by the House and Senate), it would repeal the Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUHCA). Repeal of this law would likely result in a wave of mergers, creating a few disproportionately large and powerful electricity companies that could render competition meaningless, harming consumers and workers alike.
The energy legislation would also give more power to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), chaired by deregulation proponent Patrick Wood, III. A recent report by the Government Accounting Office concluded that FERC, the agency charged with protecting the interests of utility consumers, is stymied by outdated procedures and ineffective oversight authority.
Public support for retail competition has subsided in recent months and six states that had begun to deregulate their markets have placed the process on hold. Officials in New York and New England have concluded that generators manipulated the market, driving up the price of electricity by shutting down generation plants. In Montana, the states utility company sold all of its generating facilities to an out-of-state firm, which resulted in a tenfold increase in industrial electricity prices.
Deregulation of the electric industry has failed everywhere it has been implemented. The fact that deregulation is edging closer to passage in Congress proves that the Enron spirit is not dead and that special interestsnot the public interestare driving the debate.
Less than two months after President Bush took office last year, he initiated a repeal of a comprehensive ergonomics rule aimed at preventing workplace injuries. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives dusted off a five-year-old law that had never been used to overturn a major regulation. The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to "disapprove" an agency regulation (in this case, OSHAs ergonomics standard) by simple majority vote, without hearings, committee approval or amendments.
The move was seen as a payoff to big business contributors who balked at the cost of implementing the rule. The standard that was quashed had been advanced by the Clinton Administration after 10 years of study, hearings and testimony, and would have prevented nearly 500,000 injuries a year. American workers are still waiting for decisive action on ergonomics a year and a half later.
Senior citizens have been hardest hit by escalating prescription drug prices. Seniors are most likely to need prescription drugs, but least likely to have such coverage. Congress failed to provide an affordable, reliable prescription drug benefit because Senate Republicans and Democrats could not compromise on two ideological approaches. Democrats wanted to establish a uniform drug benefit for all, under the existing Medicare delivery system. President Bush and Republicans wanted to pay subsidies to private insurers to provide coverage, leaving seniors vulnerable to coverage gaps and the possibility of cancellation.
The House this year passed a prescription drug plan that is widely seen as a giveaway to pharmaceutical companies and health maintenance organizations. Without a comparable Senate bill, the House cannot impose its plan, which forces seniors into private HMOs that would have broad authority to determine the benefit and cost-sharing requirements.
Some good news on prescription drugs came when the Senate passed legislation to speed the approval and marketing of low-cost generic drugs. The House will take that bill up in September at the earliest.
President Bush signed sweeping corporate accountability legislation into law in July following a tide of damaging disclosures about outright abuses of power and mismanagement by executives.
Only three weeks before he signed the law in a public ceremony, the President had opposed the tough provisions drafted by Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-Maryland). The new law calls for an extensive overhaul of corporate fraud, securities and accounting laws and creates a regulatory board with investigative and enforcement powers to oversee the accounting industry and punish corrupt auditors. It also establishes new standards for prosecuting wrongdoing and gives corporate whistle-blowers broad new protections. Executives who deliberately defraud investors would face long prison terms.
But as welcome as such changes are, more needs to be done. The practice of corporations moving overseas, often in name only, to avoid paying U.S. taxes must be ended. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney led a July rally in Connecticut in front of Stanley Works Ltd., which considered an overseas move. Only four days later, the tool maker buckled under the public pressure and decided against it.
The AFL-CIO launched an offensive in late July, vowing to marshal the 13 million affiliated union members in an aggressive effort to replace members of Congress who are soft on corporate crimes. Sweeney threatened to use the $6 trillion in workers pension funds to pressure companies to make more significant changes than those addressed by the corporate accountability bill. Labor will continue to press to have conflicts of interest among corporate board members disclosed, to have labor representation on corporate boards and to curb runaway executive pay and stock options.
The Davis-Bacon Act remains an essential foundation of a decent standard of living for those working in the construction industry. The law, which requires contractors on federal projects to pay community standard wages, keeps the construction industry stabilized. Yet some opponents, including House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), commonly attempt to exempt projects under consideration from Davis-Bacon provisions. House Republicans, backed by President Bush, are insisting Davis-Bacon provisions be waived by the new Homeland Security Department in times of national emergency. A Congress dominated by business interests may try to repeal this legislation, which would have disastrous consequences for construction workers, their industry, their communities and the federal government.
More importantly, our enemies are seeking "piecemeal repeal," which eliminates Davis-Bacon coverage on projects with non-traditional funding sources.
President Bush is threatening to veto the proposed bill establishing a Department of Homeland Security because of Senate language ensuring the 170,000 federal workers of the new department will have the right to maintain their civil service and collective bargaining rights. The bill would combine 22 federal agencies into one department. Bushs proposal allows the administration to waive provisions of civil service laws and strip employees of their union rights. The labor movement believes that national security and collective bargaining are not mutually exclusive.
The Future of Labor
Workers need representatives who will advance the organized labor agenda and pass tougher labor laws to combat employers who are increasingly emboldened to threaten, fire and harass workers attempting to form a union.
Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) opened a June congressional hearing by citing a study that concluded that 25 percent of employers fire workers during organizing campaigns. Workers testimony illustrated time and again that the National Labor Relations Board, the agency charged with enforcing the 1935 act that gave workers the legal right to organize, is not adequately funded or staffed.
On the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Georgia) has held hearings on his version of labor law reform. Rep. Norwood thinks American workers have too many rights. He wants, among other things, to make it an unfair labor practice for an employer to voluntarily recognize a union of workers where a majority has signed union authorization cards. Norwood attacked card-check recognition at a hearing featuring anti-union witnesses and union busting consultants.
Which view of labor law will prevail in the future? That largely depends on how IBEW members and their families vote this year. "Educated voters are the labor movements best shot at reversing some of the losses of the past two years," President Hill said.
The October issue of the Journal will have more on the November elections.
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