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Specter In Pittsburgh: Punishment and Reward at AFL-CIO Convention

Friday, September 18th, 2009

“More than ever before, we need to be a labor movement that stands by our friends, punishes its enemies, and criticizes those who, well, can’t seem to decide which side they’re on.” –Rich Trumka, in the Washington Post Sept. 7, 2009

PITTSBURGH – When the history of the bi-partisan undermining of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is written, Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter will be assigned a pivotal role.

Back on March 24, when he was still in the GOP, Specter announced that he was no longer going to be the much-prized 60th vote for “cloture” on EFCA. That’s the procedure Senate Democrats will have to employ sometime later this year to overcome a Republican filibuster, and make what retiring AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was still predicting on Sunday would be “the greatest advances in labor law reform in 70 years.”

Senator Arlen Spector

In 2007, Specter supported bringing EFCA to the floor for a Senate vote, after it was passed overwhelmingly in the House. But according to the same Senator in March, “the problems of the recession” make this year “a particularly bad time to enact Employees Free Choice.”

In organizing campaigns, where NLRB elections have been by-passed and “card check” used instead to demonstrate majority support for unionization, Spectre said “there has been “widespread intimidation” by “union officials” when the latter “visit workers’ homes with strong-arm tactics and refuse to leave until cards are signed.”

To deal with this alleged coercion, Specter recommended making it an unfair labor practice for any “union official” to visit “an employee at his/her home without prior consent for any purpose related to a representation campaign.”

While letting everyone know in March that he was no longer for cloture, Specter also positioned himself to play a key role brokering a compromise with colleagues like Tom Harkin and Chuck Schumer, who might “choose to move on and amend the NLRA” in ways more acceptable to Arlen.   

With a labor law reform record like this, Specter would seem to be just the kind of politician who needs a little labor “punishment” to send a message to the rest of his wavering breed — particularly since he now faces a Democratic primary challenge next year by a pro-EFCA congressman.

In several recent interviews, new AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka indicated that he favored holding politicians more accountable, “so they don’t listen to the moneyman and continue to erode away or negotiate away” key labor goals, a trend most evident lately in healthcare reform.

Nevertheless, here we are at the Pittsburgh Convention Center, on day three of the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial meeting, listening to that same Rich Trumka give a warm welcome to none other than Arlen Specter. From Trumka, we learn that his friend Arlen has been a rare “pro-labor Republican” for years.

From the wrinkled, frail-looking 79-year old Specter, we get a quick recitation of his past responsiveness to top union officials when job safety and health enforcement, or some other federal government function of benefit to workers, was under siege by the string of Republican presidents that he helped elect (two Bushes and a Reagan).

Today, the senator noted, he was working for a “robust public option in healthcare,” sanctions on imported Chinese tires, and emission standards that wouldn’t jeopardize jobs in coal mining, steel making, or other manufacturing.

On the matter of what he called “employees’ choice,” Specter reassured his audience that his latest position—spelled out in little detail—met the three standards set forth by Trumka, in a Sept. 5 New York Times article headlined “Union Head Would Back Bill Without Card Check.” (That was a reference to Sweeney’s own Labor Day weekend expression of willingness “to accept a fast election campaign instead of card check.” 

As described by Specter, Trunka’s three minimum requirements for “labor law reform” now include “prompt certification,” “tough penalties,” and “binding arbitration” of first contracts. According to Specter, a half dozen Senators, plus himself, Harkin, and Schumer, are working on a new version of EFCA that will “be totally satisfactory to labor.”

Specter both referenced —and was aided in his performance— by a local headline today announcing an impending Right-to-Work Committee “ad blitz” directed at him and the now abandoned “card check” method he criticized, much like the RTWC, back in March.  A full-page ad in yesterday’s Post-Gazette, run by the business-backed “Coalition for a Democratic Workplace,” still urged Specter to “oppose any versions of the job-killing” EFCA that would “shift power from workers to union bosses” or give “government-appointed bureaucrats more control in setting wages.”

These costly exertions by the anti-EFCA lobby reflect quite a different stance than elements of corporate America have taken vis-à-vis health care. In that ongoing “reform process,” labor defenders and facilitators of compromise (like SEIU leader Dennis Rivera) can at least point, as President Obama does, to what they consider to be positive movement on the part of some management players. When the subject is labor law reform —either as originally conceived or sans card check— the labor concessions made so far, brokered by the likes of Specter, have yet to be matched by anyone speaking for the employer side.

In the meantime, President Obama, who also addressed the convention today, is flying off to Philadelphia with his arm around Specter. They’ll be there together tonight at a big Specter re-election fundraiser, where Obama will be offering the same kind of reward for Specter’s party-switch that the AFL-CIO is prepared to give as well, in the hopes of getting EFCA-Lite in return.

About the Author: Steve Early is author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home, is a labor journalist and lawyer who has written for numerous publications. He was a Boston-based international representative or organizer for the Communications Workers of America for 27 years, and is a member of the editorial advisory committees of three independent labor publications: Labor Notes, New Labor Forum and Working USA.

This article was originally published in Working In These Times on September 15, 2009. Re-printed with permission from the author.

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Congress Hears Demands for Health Care Reform in Town Hall Meetings

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Members of Congress met in town hall sessions Thursday with constituents who were on Capitol Hill to rally and demand health care reform. Read dispatches from some of the meetings.

—————–

Ohio Weighs In

After the rally, more than 250 activists from Ohio met at the Columbus Club at Union Station to plan for an afternoon of lobbying and hear from members of Congress about health care reform.

“Nothing is more important to me than ensuring that President Obama passes health care reform.”

The session was introduced by Tim Burga of the Ohio AFL-CIO, who decried the “free market run amok” in the current health care system and affirmed that we must have a serious public health insurance option.

He introduced Hattie Wilkins, who made one of the most moving speeches of the event.

Her situation illustrates the deep problems working families have with the way the current system operates. Hattie is a member of the United Steelworkers (USW) union who worked for 35 years for Brentwood Originals, a pillow factory in Youngstown, Ohio. The USW struck Brentwood Originals in 2008, and more than three-quarters of the workforce has been laid off. She was fired because of her strong support for the union, Hattie said. She has been collecting $887 a month in unemployment since then. She has COBRA coverage, and now pays $275 per month—31 percent of earnings from unemployment—for her health insurance. She pays another $450 per month for her mortgage payment, leaving her only $162 each month for food, utilities, transportation and all her other expenses. Now her unemployment payments are ending and she doesn’t know what she is going to do.

At 58 years of age, Hattie is searching for another job at places like McDonald’s but has to compete with applicants much younger than she is. She gave us her cell phone number, though she wasn’t sure how much longer she would have it. Hattie came to Washington, D.C., to participate in the rally and make sure her elected representatives heard her voice on this critical issue.

Sen. Arlen Specter says health care is a right.

The Latest on Pennsylvania Town Hall

Sen. Specter has arrived, and compliments the crowd on its tenacity and commitment. Specter says he agrees that health care is a right and believes health care legislation will pass and will include a public option component. Of course, in a room full of union members, the Employee Free Choice Act came up. Specter says he is working hard to find an answer for early union certification and gaining first contracts.

Pennsylvania Update

The folks at Capitol City Brewing Co. are waiting for Sen. Arlen Specter to arrive. We hear reports he’s been at the White House.

From the North Carolina Meeting

Sen. Kay Hagan just arrived. She says the fight for health care reform is the “most important thing going on in our country.” Everyone in America must have health care coverage, she says, and patients with pre-existing conditions should be able to get health insurance.

About a public health insurance option plan, Hagan says some critics are getting caught up in nuance about language used in the debate. “I don’t care what you call it as long as it provides affordability accessibility and covers pre-existing conditions,” she says. We’d heard earlier reports that her staff told union leaders Hagan believes if health care reform passes, it will include a public option. The senator herself did not specifically say she supports the public option.

I think the key is if you have health insurance, you keep it. We don’t want to dismantle what exists.

More Pennsylvania Town Hall

Rep. Sestak arrived and talked about his daughter’s brain tumor and his health care plan to help keep her alive. Everybody deserves health care for themselves and their families, as well, he said. Sestak says his support for health care reform is “payback” to the country that provided health care for him and his family when he was in the Navy.

Everybody must be covered under health care reform, according to Sestak, and a public health insurance plan must be an option.

Nothing is more important to me than ensuring that President Obama passes health care reform.

Pennsylvania Town Hall

Hundreds of union members from Pennsylvania have packed a hall just a block from the U.S. Capitol to hear from their elected officials on the status of real health care reform. As they wait for Sen. Arlen Specter (D) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D) to appear, the chanting is in full force:

Congress, This is our demand. The option of a public plan.

What do we want? HEALTH CARE!

When do we want it? NOW!

Congress, This is our demand, the option of a public plan!

We are waiting for Specter and Sestak so we can spring that on them.

Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D) did not attend. A staff member is delivering her talking points.

Health care reform that guarantees quality, affordable health care reform must be passed.

We must ensure that patients’ choices are protected.

Maryland Town Hall

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Rep. John Sarbanes and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer speak to hundreds of Maryland workers and all support public option.

Rep. Blumenauer at Town Hall on Small Business

At a town hall focused on small business issues this morning at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) advocated a public insurance option plan, guaranteed coverage and a “pay or play” system that would require businesses to provide health care coverage for their employees or pay into a fund. These reforms would level the playing field and reduce cost burdens on small businesses, he said.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now. Re-printed with permission by the author.


Union Busting Ended My Love Affair with a Beer

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Over many years, I have developed an intimate relationship with the sweet, lager taste of Yuengling Black & Tan. After moving to the cutthroat world of Washington, D.C. politics, I found that Yuengling always comforted me with memories of my working class roots and the world of flannel hunting jackets, wedding receptions at union halls, 4th of July barbecues, and tailgate parties that represented my native Western Pennsylvania. I took pride in introducing my friends to this beauty of a beer—cheap, delicious, and made by union workers back home in Pennsylvania. Women had come and gone, dogs had died, but Yuengling had always been there for me – until now.

This past weekend when I discovered that Yuengling had illegally busted their union, I was emotionally devastated. I had just bought a case of Yuengling earlier that same day and had it sitting at home in the refrigerator waiting for me.  What would I do? I was broke and couldn’t possibly afford to buy another case of beer, but at the same time I couldn’t possibly  enjoy drinking a Yuengling knowing what they had done to their workers. So instead, I found myself  at home, watching a baseball game on a Saturday night, and enjoying a nice, cold glass of milk as I struggled to deal with how Yuengling had betrayed not only its workers, but me.

Quickly I found my outrage shifting from beyond Yuengling to the lack of U.S. labor law protecting workers from such abusive, unfair practices. It turns out that the company had petitioned for a decertification election to kick the union out of the brewery when the contract of the union expired. Dick Yuengling, the owner of Yuengling Brewery, gathered all the workers and told them that “the writing was on the wall”. He said that if they didn’t vote to kick the union out, he would close the plant, and ship the work to a non-union facility in the South. The workers, scared of losing their job in a region with  high unemployment, voted to ditch their union and save their jobs.
While threatening to close a plant if a union wins such an election is highly illegal, the Yuengling Company has been able to get away with due to the weakness of U.S. labor law. According to a study recently released by Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University, employers threaten to close facilities in 57% of union elections if workers choose a union, despite the fact that this threat is carried out only 2% of the time.  This is because under U.S. labor law the penalty  for threatening to close plants or firing workers during a union election is that the boss merely has to post a piece of paper saying they broke the law.

As one longtime union organizer once put it to me “If the penalty for robbing a bank was you had to post a piece of paper saying you robbed a bank, we’d all be bank robbers!”

Under current U.S. Labor Law, employers can freely violate the law without serious penalty. As a result, workers are fired from their job in 34% of union elections  and companies illegally threaten to close a facility in 57% of all union elections. In this economy, losing one’s job is tantamount not just to losing more than just a job, but also to losing home to foreclosure and more gravely – one’s health insurance. As a result of the ability of bosses to freely intimidate with such Gestapo-style tactics, 58% percent of workers indicate they would like to join a union, but only 8% of private sector employees are members of one out of the fear of what their bosses might do to them for trying to join  a union.

The Employee Free Choice Act would give U.S. labor law real teeth – leveling heavy fines against employees who unlawfully intimidate or threaten workers. The Employee Free Choice Act would allow workers to join unions free of intimidation a process of majority sign where workers merely would have to get 50% of their co-workers to sign a card to be part of a union.

Currently, The biggest obstacle to the passing the Employee Free Choice Act is quite ironically the very Senator who represents the workers at Yuengling Brewing  – “Democrat” Arlen Specter.  Quite ironically, Arlen Specter, who had in previous years voted for the Employee Free Choice Act, has fallen victim to the same type of corporate intimidation and flipped his position to being against the Employee Free Choice Act. Its time that Arlen Specter show solidarity with the 20,000 workers that are fired every year for attempting to join a union. Arlen Specter needs to vote for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would protect the rights of workers to freely join unions that the overwhelming majority of his constituents favor especially the once unionized workers of a once dear friend – Yuengling.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer and worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). He works currently as an editor at AlterNet.

This article originally appeared in AlterNet on June 17, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

Signing a Card to Join a Group? What a Novel Idea.

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

If you have any interest in politics you have heard by now the big news about Senator Arlen Specter switching his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. From what I can gather, the actual process to switch parties merely requires some paperwork. That’s it!

Sen. Specter does not want to join the ranks of the 434,000 people unemployed in Pennsylvania and made a strategic decision to sign-up to be a Democrat. Now, as a new member of an affiliation working to protect his job, President Obama has pledged to campaign for him and the fundraising juggernaut, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), already lists Specter as a Democrat to support in the 2010 political cycle.

In Senator Specter’s statement about switching parties, he noted his continued opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act. He stated,

“My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans. Unlike Senator Jeffords’ switch which changed party control, I will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture. For example, my position on Employees Free Choice (Card Check) will not change.”

Despite Sen. Specter’s betrayal by flip flopping his position on the Employee Free Choice Act last month, leaders and spokespeople within the labor movement have expressed subdued exuberance at the prospect of Sen. Specter joining the ranks of the Democrats. Sen. Specter’s party switch may indicate a compromise for the Employee Free Choice Act, and therefore, with Sen. Specter’s support, the bill could be closer to achieving the 60 votes needed for cloture.

I do not carry the heavy burden of a leader representing millions of members, so I can afford to be more skeptical and indignant. But the fact remains that Sen. Specter stated just one month ago that he would not support the bill and, as noted above, made a point of reiterating his position in his statement about switching parties. This is after he was on record for years as supporting the bill. He supported it when it was only theoretical since it didn’t have the votes to pass with Republicans holding the majority in Congress and President Bush in office vowing to veto it if it should ever come across his desk. And as a supporter of the theoretical bill, Sen. Specter enjoyed a great deal of support from unions.

Now, in 2009, with a Democratic President and majority in Congress the theoretical bill has become very real. Now is the time a person’s word and support means something. And Sen. Specter changed his position. His reasoning? He claims he cannot support legislation that would make it easier for working people to gain the protection and support of an organization that will bargain for wages, benefits and terms of employment until, wait for it – the economy improves. Well, he has a point. In a time of economic uncertainty, rampant layoffs, corporations asking employees for major givebacks while its managers award themselves multi-million dollar bonuses and travel by corporate jet – that’s certainly no time for workers to have some semblance of checks and balances looking out for their best interests.

So the question begs to be asked: Senator Specter – You signed a form and now belong to a group that will fight for your job and will represent your interests exactly at the time you really needed it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could ALL have that option?

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