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May 2018

The Front Line: Politics & Jobs
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In Kentucky, IBEW Members Thwart Attack on
State's Unemployment Benefits

IBEW members in Kentucky joined with labor allies to stop and attempt to roll back critical unemployment benefits. The attack on working families would have had far-reaching consequences for members of the IBEW's construction branch, in particular.

In 2016, Republicans took complete control of Kentucky state government for the first time in nearly a century, and right-to-work and a repeal of prevailing wage sailed through the one-party state government. But this time IBEW members and their allies sent a message.

"Enough is enough," they said, fighting back against a bill that would have drastically cut unemployment benefits in the state. A watered-down version passed without the cap some GOP legislators sought.

"We flooded them with phone calls," said former Louisville Local 369 Business Manager Bill Finn, who now serves as director of the Kentucky State Building and Construction Trades Council. "It impacted a lot of unions, but I think it impacted ours the most."

The original legislation called for length of payments to be determined by the state's unemployment rate, which would have cut payouts from 26 to 16 weeks. It also would have capped the maximum weekly benefit at current levels unless all seven states bordering Kentucky raised theirs.

The GOP majority passed a right-to-work law last year in one of its first orders of business under Gov. Matt Bevin. It wasn't a surprise. The Republicans have a 63-37 advantage in the House and a 27-11 edge in the Senate.

But the proposal to cut unemployment benefits raised concern even among some GOP legislators. Kentucky's economy has improved, but it still has some of the poorest counties in the nation, where unemployment sometimes reaches 12 percent.

"I think kicking a worker while he's unemployed got to the conscience of some of these legislators like right-to-work really didn't last year," Finn said.

"It would have killed us," Local 369 Business Manager Charlie Essex said. "My biggest concern was guys leaving the construction industry for maintenance gigs because of the stability of the work. In construction, even in good times, there's going to be days where there isn't any work. If we lose those members, all the training they've had goes with it."

The average weekly benefit paid to unemployed Kentucky workers last year was about $330, with a maximum of $448. Opponents noted the proposed change basically amounted to a lifetime cap.

"In effect, you're freezing the rate," Finn said. "You probably wouldn't see an increase in our lifetime. The other seven states are competing to see who can go the lowest.'"

Even in victory, it wasn't all happy news. Bevin signed a law that revises the worker's compensation laws, placing a 15-year cap on payments from the date of the injury, even if someone suffered a permanent disability from an on-the-job accident. Workers will have to re-apply for benefits after those 15 years are up.

"This is about greed," said Rep. Al Gentry, a Louisville Democrat who lost his arm in an accident years ago. Gentry said he has arthritis in his remaining arm because of increased use and will need medical care for the rest of his life.

Employers pay into workers' compensation funds in every state. They not only provide a sense of security for their employees, but provide a buffer against lawsuits. Workers are barred from suing their employer or coworkers for negligence once they accept it.

IBEW members in nearly every branch work in dangerous conditions, making the thought of being less able to rely on worker's compensation disturbing, Essex and others said. The increased costs also could trickle down to local unions and their signatory contractors.

"It will put a strain on our benefits. We would have to help [injured workers] out, too. I can't see letting someone get hurt at work and then let them run out of benefits," he said.

"The Democrats had control of the House for 100 years, and we had that wall that protected workers and their rights," said Portsmouth, Ohio, Local 575 President Joe Dillow, who lives in Kentucky. "It seems like now that the majority is gone, the other side is trying to get everything back from the last century in a year or two."


Skilled construction work sometimes dries up even in good economic times. That's why the IBEW and its allies fought an attempt to cut Kentucky's unemployment benefits.

Big Banks Fueled the Great Recession.
GOP Lawmakers Want to Set Them Free to Do It Again

Republican lawmakers are pursuing major changes to the banking regulations that helped steer the nation out of the Great Recession.

In March, the U.S. Senate passed a major rollback of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms enacted in 2010, consumer protections that were intended to rebuild the economy and to put in place common-sense measures that would prevent another economic collapse like the one that started in 2008 and cost American workers nearly 10 million jobs.

But conservatives in the U.S. House argue the Senate bill didn't go far enough to unleash the freewheeling, risky banking practices responsible for the downturn.

"Whether or not this particular bill survives, Republicans will keep trying to destroy the laws that revived the economy and brought back our jobs," International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. "We all remember how bad it got after 2008. The recession was devastating for this Brotherhood and for our families, our friends, our communities. We can't let that happen again."

As passed by the Senate, the bill exempts two-thirds of the country's 38 largest financial institutions from Dodd-Frank rules that brought more transparency and less risk to banking.

The law helped stabilize the economy, spurring sustained economic growth that created 17 million American jobs between 2010 and 2017 and has safeguarded consumers against predatory lenders and other banking abuses.

While the national jobless rate peaked at 10 percent before Dodd-Frank, unemployment among IBEW inside wiremen hit 26 percent when the construction business bottomed out. That rate steadily dropped after the bill passed and construction today is at or near full employment in much of the country.

Fighting against weaker rules, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein criticized supporters for forgetting "not only the lessons from 10 years ago, but also the devastating consequences for American families. In California, more than 2 million people were unemployed, 3.5 million mortgages were at risk and nearly 200,000 people filed for bankruptcy. We simply can't return to that time."

That's the risk Congress is taking, a high-ranking bank regulator warned lawmakers. "Memories are short and with an improving economy, these laws and regulations — which early in the recovery are viewed as essential — are eventually recast as burdensome constraints that need to be eased or ended," said Thomas Hoenig, outgoing chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

As Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown put it, "Whose side are we on? Megabank lobbyists, or American taxpayers and homeowners and students and workers?"

GOP backers claim the bill will revive community banks and credit unions.

Republicans are trying to conjure images of a small town Main Street bank with tellers who know customers by name and a bank president who sponsors the Little League team.

"Those are the banks that supporters of deregulation want you to think are helped by this bill, but it's not really true," wrote Nick Jacobs of Better Markets, a public-interest group focused on a financial system that is both safe and strong. "The biggest beneficiaries are 26 of the largest banks in the country. They are bailout recipients. They are recidivist lawbreakers. And they are foreign-owned banks. They are not community banks."

Contrary to deregulation talking points, small lenders were shutting their doors long before Dodd-Frank was law. A study by the Center for American Progress found that the decline began in the 1980s for reasons that include economies of scale and new technology.

In remarks before the Senate vote, Brown recalled the audacious comment in March 2017 by James Ballentine, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association.

"I don't want a seat at the table. I want the table," Ballentine told a conference of bankers.

"Piece by piece, Wall Street has gone to the agencies, gone to the courts, and gone to Congress to dismantle the protections we put in place," Brown said. "The drumbeat is constant. They always want a new exemption, or a new, weaker standard, or a new tax break. And they are about to get it."

International President Lonnie R. Stephenson urges IBEW members to call their senators and representatives at (202) 224-3121, the U.S. Capitol, or contact their home offices to demand they put working families ahead of big banks' special interests.


Wall Street could be unleashed to go back to the risky dealing that brought on the 2008 Great Recession.