|The Front Line: Politics & Jobs
|Wisconsin Goes Right-to-Work|
In March, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed into law right-to-work legislation that weakens the ability of workers to collectively bargain.
"Right-to-work is part of a national anti-worker agenda that won't bring one job to the state or help a single family put food on the table," said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.
Right-to-work laws weaken workers' ability to collectively bargain by making it harder for unions to collect dues, driving down wages and benefits. The average worker in a right-to-work state makes $1,500 less a year than his counterpart in union-friendly states.
Employees in pro-worker states are also more likely to have job-based health benefits.
Ed Pilkington from the Guardian reports that the Wisconsin bill is almost a verbatim copy of model legislation developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a secretive ultra-right wing think tank that provides model bills on everything from eliminating safety regulations to anti-worker bills like right-to-work and anti-prevailing wage legislation.
Union members and their supporters rallied in Madison throughout the month. Some employers have also voiced their displeasure with right-to-work.
James Hoffman, president of Hoffman Construction Co., told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the change to state labor law could devastate his business.
He says if employees can opt out of paying union fees, union-sponsored training programs will suffer. And that means less skilled workers for his company.
"Why are you doing this to my company?" he asked state Republicans.
For Madison Local 159 Business Manager Robert Doyle, it's a reminder of the importance of voting for the right candidates. He also says it's vital for unions to get more active and develop a stronger message that can connect with the broader community.
"Our opponents are using divide and conquer tactics to weaken our movement," he said.
IBEW to Lawmakers: Hit the Brakes on 'Fast Track'
Imagine a future where companies looking to make a profit off of overseas sweatshops can sue countries trying to eliminate child labor. The corporations can also sue governments that enact any kind of labor law that puts people before profits. And health care costs in impoverished nations rise as big pharmaceutical companies fight to keep cheaper, life-saving drugs off the market.
Meanwhile, that huge sucking sound that came after NAFTA — the sound of jobs leaving U.S. shores — comes back around again, with even greater vengeance.
Sound like a premise for some dystopian science fiction movie? It's not. It's the likely reality if Congress goes ahead in approving so-called fast track authority for the highly-secretive Trans Pacific Partnership.
The TPP would govern trade between the United States and 12 other Pacific-rim nations: Japan, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Vietnam. Supporters, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and President Obama, say the TPP will expand trade with some of the world's most vibrant economies, representing close to 40 percent of world GDP.
Fast track, which was also authorized before NAFTA, would establish a process that allows no amendments and limited debate on the TPP when it is brought before Congress.
Critics of the deal question what good can come from a trade agreement where negotiations have so far been held in secret. Legislators, unions, environmental and other citizens groups have been excluded from the talks, while hundreds of corporate lobbyists have been inside the discussions from the beginning. Details about the TPP have only come from drafts leaked by the website WikiLeaks.
But a growing and vocal group of pro-worker lawmakers are urging their colleagues to take a step back and evaluate what the trade deal would spell for American working families.
On Feb. 26, several U.S. senators spoke out on the Senate floor on the need for a U.S. trade policy that puts the needs of workers and communities first. "The talent and tenacity of American workers hasn't changed — but our leaders' commitment to them has," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). "And nowhere is that abandonment more clear than the free trade agreements we now approve with little oversight and minimal debate. We know that trade done right creates prosperity, and as a progressive, I want trade that strengthens the middle class here at home and lifts workers from poverty in America and around the world — not another NAFTA."
In a Feb. 25 op-ed in the Washington Post, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sounded the alarm on a portion of the TPP that she said everyone should be wary of: the so-called Investor-State Dispute Settlement.
"The name may sound mild, but don't be fooled. Agreeing to ISDS in this enormous new treaty would tilt the playing field in the United States further in favor of big multinational corporations. Worse, it would undermine U.S. sovereignty," she wrote.
"ISDS would allow foreign companies to challenge U.S. laws — and potentially to pick up huge payouts from taxpayers — without ever stepping foot in a U.S. court," Warren wrote. "Here's how it would work. Imagine that the United States bans a toxic chemical that is often added to gasoline because of its health and environmental consequences. If a foreign company that makes the toxic chemical opposes the law, it would normally have to challenge it in a U.S. court.
"But with ISDS, the company could skip the U.S. courts and go before an international panel of arbitrators," Warren continues. "If the company won, the ruling couldn't be challenged in U.S. courts, and the arbitration panel could require American taxpayers to cough up millions — and even billions — of dollars in damages."
Lawmakers like Brown and Warren also argue that the TPP could be a NAFTA redux — with potentially far more dire effects, considering the current state of trade imbalances:
The United States has a $476 billion annual trade deficit — 60 percent of which is with China.
The U.S. economy has lost about 6 million manufacturing jobs and more than 60,000 factories since 2001.
Of these lost jobs, 3.2 million are due to trade with China, nearly 700,000 have gone to Mexico following NAFTA, and 60,000 have been lost to Korea since the Korea Free Trade Agreement in 2012.
The Korea agreement is regarded as the template for the TPP. The watchdog group Public Citizen states that since the deal, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea has surged 72 percent — indicating even more lost U.S. jobs as the economy was getting itself off the ropes following the Great Recession.
"For too long, our leaders have let multinational corporations dictate our trade rules at the expense of the middle class," said IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill. "The results have been tragic: a growing trade deficit, stagnating wages and the disappearance of too many good jobs. We are ready to stand with President Obama in realizing the vision of a fair global economy. But first, he has to decide if his vision of trade puts working families and shared prosperity first."
While many lawmakers are publically remaining quiet on whether or not they will support fast track for the TPP, some pro-worker senators like Brown and Warren have gone on record in opposition to the deal. Hill and other IBEW leaders are calling on members living in these senators' states to call or email them and thank them for their support of fair trade and good, middle-class jobs. (See the list in our April story on ibew.org by following this link:.)
"I urge IBEW brothers, sisters and their family members to thank these brave lawmakers for having our backs. Rest assured, we will be holding other legislators accountable and asking them how they stand on the TPP and how they plan to help strengthen a U.S. economy that works for everyone."
Obama Vetoes Anti-Worker Bill,
New Rules Enacted April 14
President Obama on March 31 vetoed a proposed bill that would have scrapped new rules designed to streamline union election procedures.
The National Labor Relations Board put new rules in place last December that will level the playing field for workers by updating filing procedures and allowing for quicker votes. Instead of waiting nearly a month — and usually longer — to vote, workers could cast ballots in as few as two weeks. The new rules went into effect April 14.
It was the fourth veto of Obama's presidency. "Unions historically have been at the forefront of establishing things like the 40-hour work week, the weekend, child labor laws, fair benefits and decent wages," Obama said after striking down Congress' measure.
Congress had voted March 19 to roll back the NLRB's decision, siding with big business groups who opposed the changes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called it an "ambush election rule," saying it would stack the deck against employers and "virtually eliminate employers' opportunities to communicate their views, stifling a full and robust debate among employees about unionization."
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka had called the House vote "a direct attack on workers and their right to be heard in the workplace."
"Working men and women want an agenda from their Congressional leaders that raises wages and grows our middle class," he said. "Instead, they have gotten Republican policies that roll back progress and silence workers while protecting their biggest donors. President Obama is right in his commitment to vetoing this harmful legislation, and congressional Republicans should focus their efforts on lifting workers up instead of shutting them out."
A May 2009 study of employer opposition to union organizing done by Cornell University researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner finds:
The IBEW produced an award-winning video in 2010 called "Workplace Democracy: Corporate Style" that highlights this issue. Watch it at.
Right-Wing Targets Ind. Common Construction Wage
An Indiana law that leveled the playing field for building and construction workers on public projects for 80 years is on the verge of repeal by the state's Republican-led legislature.
Ironically, Indiana's Common Construction Wage Law was first established in 1935 as a Republican initiative, a response to out-of-state contractors undercutting Indiana firms with cheaper, less-skilled labor on public projects.
Under the statute, a five-person committee of taxpayers, industry experts and public agency representatives determines wages to be paid on public construction projects.
Projects like the Indianapolis International Airport and Lucas Oil Stadium, home to the Indianapolis Colts, have been constructed under the common wage.
"Today we're paying a price for losing too many labor-friendly legislators in 2010 and even more in 2012," says Indiana Political Coordinator Mike Daugherty. "Too many union members across the state failed to show up and vote their interests."
For the past 10 years, Gov. Mike Pence and his predecessor, Mitch Daniels, have consistently spread the notion that letting construction wages fluctuate on the free market will save taxpayers money, Daugherty said.
On Feb. 23, the Indiana House of Representatives voted to repeal the common construction wage.
On March 1, the Indiana state Senate's president snatched the bill repealing the common wage out of the hands of the chamber's pension and labor committee. His action undermined his Republican ally, the labor committee's chairman, who had called for a summer study committee to review the proposed legislation prior to any Senate vote.
The Senate, says Daugherty, is now poised to kill the bill before the current session of the part-time legislature adjourns for the summer. Only 10 of 50 state senators and 29 of 100 lower chamber members consistently support worker-friendly legislation, he says.
"Big business is having their way," says Kokomo, Ind., Local 873 Business Manager Chuck Griffin, who says anti-union contractors and their friends in public office have methodically weakened the common construction wage since 1995.
In 2012, the threshold for applicability of the common wage was raised from $150,000 to $350,000, reducing the number of workers it protected. And the composition of the five-person committee was changed to include an overtly anti-union entity.
In addition to an industry representative appointed by the awarding agency and an Indiana AFL-CIO representative, the committee had consisted of an appointee of the governor. The 2012 change provided for the governor's appointment to be transferred to the vehemently anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors.
To defend the common construction wage, the IBEW, Indiana's building and construction trades and their signatory contractors produced dozens of fact sheets for state residents and the media explaining how the wage builds strong communities, local shops and businesses and apprenticeship opportunities for youth and unemployed adults.
Testifying in support of the common wage in the Indiana House, Michelle Boyd, executive director of the Indiana Building Contractors Alliance, told legislators, "Indiana has a strong construction industry business base representing both small and large businesses. Together, these businesses invest more than $42 million a year in apprenticeship training throughout the state of Indiana."
Legislators opposing repeal include a bipartisan House delegation from heavily industrial Northwest Indiana. They counter the governor's claim that terminating the common construction wage would save taxpayers money.
"When you're dealing with taxpayers' money, you have to make sure the job gets done right and you've got quality workers doing that work," said Northwest Indiana State Sen. Rick Niemeyer. "Until somebody can show that eliminating this law is going to help that, I can't support it," the Republican told the Northwest Indiana Times.
While opponents expect the common construction wage to be repealed, some municipal public officials are pushing back. In South Bend, the city voted to continue paying prevailing wages no matter what the legislature decides.
Despite pockets of resistance, Daugherty expects an ongoing docket of anti-worker legislation as Pence and his party's legislators continue to advance the anti-worker agenda of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, supported by big money businessmen like the Koch brothers.
"Repeal of the common construction wage would be another tragedy for workers in a state where workers have already seen too much pain as its industrial base has declined," said International President Edwin D. Hill. "Our adversaries in Indiana will continue to spread the false notion that cheaper construction is better for taxpayers. We must spare no effort to continually demonstrate to our neighbors how local communities benefit from the superior training, purchasing power and dependability of IBEW members and other proud workers in the building and construction trades."