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March 2013

The War on the Middle Class
Working Families Unite Against Attacks
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Anti-worker candidates fell short at the polls last November, but that hasn't stopped right-wing state lawmakers and their billionaire backers from following in the footsteps of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, using the legislative process to weaken unions and silence the voices of working families.

The new year has brought a fresh wave of attacks in legislatures across the country, and working families are getting organized to stand up for the middle class. Check future issues of the Electrical Worker and for more on the fight for workers' rights.


In the Sunflower State, lawmakers are considering legislation that would drastically curtail the rights of teachers, firefighters and other public workers to participate in the political process.

A House bill introduced in January would prohibit public-sector unions from setting up automatic paycheck deductions to fund political activity — even with the employee's approval.

The bill would also ban public-sector unions from spending voluntary political action contributions on almost any kind of political activity — including lobbying and taking part in referendums. Public sector unions are already prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates for office.

"The House is trying to stifle the voices of working families in Kansas," says Topeka Local 304 Business Manager Paul Lira. Local 304 represents both outside line and municipal workers throughout the Topeka area.

On Jan. 23, Lira testified in front of the state House Commerce, Labor, and Economic Development Committee.

"HB 2023 fixes a problem that doesn't exist," he said. "There is no deception in how we use members' dues or political contributions."

Lira says Kansas unions play an important role in the legislative process of the historically Republican state, promoting issues of workplace safety, fair pay and workers' rights.

"While we haven't always seen eye to eye with Republican lawmakers, traditionally there has been a strong moderate wing of the party that understands the importance of unions in Kansas," he says.

But that changed over the summer. Right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers and Washington, D.C.-based antiunion organizations like Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth spent millions of dollars on radio and TV ads to oust moderate Republicans during last August's primaries.

Former Senate President Steven Morris — one of the Republicans who lost his primary to a conservative challenger — told the Huffington Post that the Koch brothers, who helped fund the campaign of his opponent, are using Kansas as a testing ground for their ideological agenda.

"They said it will be an ultraconservative utopia," he said. "It depends on your definition of utopia."

A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate. Gov. Sam Brownback (R) has not yet taken a public position.

Lira says the so called "paycheck protection" bill is only one part of a national campaign to roll back unions and quash workers' rights.

"It's the same stuff we saw in Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana," he says. "It's all part of a nationwide anti-union agenda."


The Central Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades are "showing a united front and getting word out to business managers and members to keep them abreast of right-to-work bills and other legislation that would hurt our members," says Harrisburg Local 143 Business Manager Robert Bair.

While Republican legislator Rep. Darryl Metcalfe has introduced right-to-work bills in the state Legislature for 14 years that failed to pass, MSNBC's Ed Schultz quoted the host of the regionally-syndicated radio program The Rick Smith Show, about the challenge presented by several new bills that would undermine collective bargaining. Describing a bill that would allow unionized public employees the option to leave their unions whenever they choose, Smith says:

"The Bloom bill [proposed by Republican Rep. Stephen Bloom] is particularly dangerous because it may be viewed as not as extreme while achieving the same destructive ends."

Mike Kwashnik, business manager of Wilkes-Barre Local 163, agrees with Smith's assessment, taking his warning from last year's legislative session:

"Last year, we had a horrible bill on unemployment benefits pass the Legislature. It took effect on Jan. 1 and devastates construction workers by making it even harder to achieve eligibility. The state is trying to balance the unemployment benefits budget deficit on the backs of construction workers."

Bills are also introduced in the current session, says Kwashnik, to gut the ability of employers and unions to negotiate project labor agreements.

As local unions across Pennsylvania develop a battle plan to stop anti-worker legislation, Robert Bair draws hope from the success of unions during the November 2012 election cycle in turning members out to vote, helping elect three new friends of working families to the state Senate.

"The building trades will be circling the wagons to stop right-to-work," he says.

Kwashnik, who recently hosted a presentation by his local union's attorney explaining the damage being wrought by the state's restrictive unemployment compensation program, says his local is focusing on educating members on the facts of right-to-work.

"International President Hill said it all in his column, 'Michigan's Big Step Backward,' in the January issue of The Electrical Worker," he says. "He pointed to how right-to-work laws drive down wages for all workers by an average of $1,500 a year, whether they are union or not. He also highlighted that 28 percent more workers go without health insurance in right-to-work states than in non-right-to-work states."


Iowa has been a right-to-work state since 1947, but that's not enough for some right-wing lawmakers. In January, a House subcommittee passed a resolution that would inscribe right-to-work language into the state constitution.

The Jan. 23 subcommittee meeting was stormy, with scores of union supporters and pro-worker advocates in attendance.

State AFL-CIO President Ken Sagar says lawmakers are trying to pass a constitutional amendment because the GOP fears control of the Legislature may switch in 2014.

"Pro-worker candidates were only a few hundred votes away — across a handful of districts — from taking the state House and Senate in 2012," he says. Sagar, a member of Cedar Rapids Local 204, adds "the ultra-right sees this as their chance to make right-to-work-for-less permanent."

While Sagar questions whether the constitutional change has enough support in the Senate to move forward, he says the AFL-CIO is mobilizing its members and educating them on why right-to-work is bad for the middle class.

"We need to explain to every union member how important politics is and why it makes a difference in their lives," he says.

He points to the effectiveness of the Working Iowa Neighbors program, which since its launch in 2009 has fielded scores of union members for office — from school boards to the legislature — in making the labor movement a real force in Iowa politics. "It's like an apprenticeship for elected office," he says.

With such determined opponents in Des Moines, Sagar says organized labor has to mobilize its members on the grassroots level year-round. "Labor isn't a jobs trust program, it's a social movement on behalf of all working people."


Working people are mobilizing to defend their rights against right-wing attacks.