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September 3, 2004
By Marty Mulcahy
BAY CITY - More than half a century after unions reached their pinnacle of clout in 1953 - when 35.7 of the U.S. workforce was in the house of organized labor - unions are not far from becoming irrelevant to the American political process.
That point was hammered home to delegates at the 47th annual convention of the Michigan Building Trades Council (MBTC). The reminders were aplenty how the Nov. 2 election for U.S. president promises to be a defining event in the history of the U.S. labor movement.
"Regrettably, some of our members think that a vote for President Bush is a vote for working people," said MBTC Secretary-Treasurer Tom Boensch. "I think they're dead wrong."
President Bush, Boensch said, opposes the Davis-Bacon Act and prevailing wage laws and project labor agreements, has cut OSHA and reduced job site inspections, has promoted outsourcing of U.S jobs, and has "beaten down" unions in the private sector and is now targeting public employee unions.
"He has done all that, and he's taken the wheels off the construction economy," Boensch said. "After all the things he's done to us in the first four years, can you imagine what he will do to us in the next four years when he doesn't have to worry about being re-elected?"
Boensch and other speakers told building trades delegates that the results of the Nov. 2 election may help stop the historic decline of the clout of organized labor with a win by John Kerry - or provide a shove down a black hole of irrelevancy with the re-election of George W. Bush.
Below are summaries of frank comments by two of the speakers,
who warned that organized labor is approaching an historic threshold.
Mark Gaffney is president of the Michigan AFL-CIO. He spoke to Michigan Building Trades delegates on Aug. 24.
"The problem President Bush," Gaffney said, "is he is the most dangerous president for the labor movement that we may have ever seen."
The other problem according to Gaffney: "Our members ought to understand that by now. With all the job losses, the rotten economy, and all of your members who have struggled to find work. Of course a lot of members get this.
"About half of them get it right away, maybe even 60 percent get it and will vote for John Kerry. But we all know that maybe 25 percent of union members are going to vote for George Bush anyway, because of abortion, because of guns, or for whatever other reason that we don't fully understand.
"So there is about 60 percent of our members who do get it, and will vote for Kerry. About 25 percent will vote for Bush. That leaves 15 percent. George Bush knows that he doesn't need to get a majority of your members to win Michigan. He knows he only needs to win that 15 percent. That's where the fight is."
Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent in Michigan and around the country by both Democrats and Republicans to win the vote of that small sliver of voters, Gaffney said.
"It's almost silly," he said. "We're all spending hundreds of millions to reach only 15-20 percent of the electorate. The reality is there are 14 battleground states, and Michigan is one of them. We are perhaps one of the three most important battleground states in the nation."
Gaffney said Kerry can lose other top battlegrounds states like Florida and Ohio and still win the election. "But under no scenario can he lose Michigan and still win the nation," he said. "And that's why George Bush is spending so much time in Michigan."
Polling - which is getting more and more extensive - is showing that Kerry is receiving much more support among union members than with their household spouses and voting-age children.
Gaffney said to counter this trend, one of the major tactics being undertaken by organized labor is person to person contact: knocking on the doors of targeted swing-voting union members. Not a popular process with the knocker or knockee, but it's an effective tactic nonetheless.
"The best way to approach union members is to knock on the door," he said. "So these walks are critical to address that falloff in the households."
Why is organized labor spending all this time, money and wearing out soles of shoes during this election? Gaffney said it's simple: the ability of labor unions to represent the interests of working Americans is at stake. All the things union members hold dear, good health care, pensions for a good retirement and a voice in workplace conditions are all slowly going away, but the process has been advanced by the Bush Administration.
"I've always said that if the percentage of union membership in the American workforce drops below 10 percent, we're done," Gaffney said. "We will not have the strength to come back. From that point forward we will just be riding out the demise of the labor movement.
"At this point we're at 13.5 percent. We're getting dangerously close to 10 percent and George Bush and his gang knows it. If they can put that last couple of nails in our coffin it will be the end of us as far as being a political power.
"That's the goal of this administration, to make it so that your children and grandchildren do not have the option to work as union workers."
Don Power is a federal mediator who was invited to speak to Michigan building trades delegates on Aug. 24.
The year 1980, said Power - the year Ronald Reagan was elected president - was a watershed year for the U.S. labor movement. In the decades before 1980, he said the founders of the American labor movement and those who came after them "did one hell of a job to give us what we had and the opportunities that we had."
But by 1980, American unions and union members had become "fat and were rich from success." There were warnings he said, from "some people who said beware, who said don't let it slip away from you."
But much did slip away.
"We entered the global marketplace, for better or worse," Power said. "First our jobs went to the low-paying southern United States, then south of the border, and now they're in China.
"We were challenged on the home front by those from other countries who said they can produce goods at lower prices and higher quality than we could. For a period of time we lost our faith and we lost our focus."
In 2004, he told delegates, America has regained its focus - "but we have many handicaps. We still have the best workforce in the world - but they're unemployed, and there are fewer union members. Union membership among United States construction workers in 1980 was 30.9 percent. In 2003 it was 16 percent. Politically, that means your strength is impaired You have fewer people. Lawmakers don't want to listen to you. Labor laws aren't being enforced."
For example, Power suggested that "there wasn't one peep
out of anybody, including the labor movement" over the lack
of union representation at the newly created Department of Homeland
Security because no one wanted to appear "unpatriotic."
Labor and management have to re-think their roles and their strategies, he said. Strikes and lockouts are on the decline, and he said "the reality in a global market is that these tools are not very effective any more. We have to seek new ways and new tools to become strong again."
Power suggested five strategies to improve unions in the U.S.:
*Finding common ground with employers. "The employer, whether some of us realize it or not, needs you. Desperately. At every avenue and at every turn my suggestion is that you sit with them and find common ground where it is honest."
*Too often, he said organized labor "shoots itself in the posterior. As a mediator my anger increases every day when I would see unions working at cross purposes with one another. I remind all of us that there is only one union movement and it has many faces; many views. But a harm to one is a harm to all."
*On politics: "You need to be strategic. I think recently, you have been," he said. "You also need to determine who your friends really are."
*Refocus the economic direction of unions. "You need to seek new markets. The old days aren't coming back. We won't be building manufacturing plants in an environment where manufacturing employment in every state in the United States is plummeting at a startlingly dangerous rate."
*Overcome the mistrust of members toward union leaders, employers and politicians. "They have unique needs," he said. "They are unique people. Sometimes they anger us. Sometimes they irritate us. I know they irritate me as a mediator. But they still are our future and the question is how do we serve them and bring them back in as a cohesive force for your strength and your benefit."
Power said in addition to working in the environment of the global economy and an unfriendly political system, organized labor in the U.S. is now at a tipping point for losing an effective collective bargaining system.
"The American trade union movement is at that point,"
he said. "Don't let it happen here."
By Ross Eisenbrey
On Monday, Aug. 23, the Bush administration took away the right to receive overtime pay from millions of employees in a broad range of occupations, from office workers in financial services to embalmers, nursery school teachers and restaurant chefs and assistant managers.
Despite four disapproving votes in Congress, the Bush administration is using its power and authority to accomplish the biggest rollback in employee rights in more than half a century.
The administration denies it is weakening overtime rights and claims to be taking overtime pay from workers earning $100,000 a year or more. But the new regulations have their biggest impact on employees earning far less. Salaried employees earning as little as $24,000 a year are subject to the new rules, which make it far easier for employers to deny overtime pay.
It might shock people to think the government would lie to them, but there is no nice way to describe the administration's campaign of disinformation around the new overtime regulations.
Secretary Elaine Chao's spin - that she is only interested in clarity and helping low-wage workers - is belied by the regulations themselves. According to three top experts on the Fair Labor Standards, virtually every change in the new regulations will weaken or eliminate the right to overtime pay. These nonpartisan experts, first appointed in the Reagan administration, include the Department's top two Fair Labor Standards lawyers for most of the last 20 years and the top career official responsible for enforcing the law during that same period. They also conclude the new regulations are so confusing and self-contradictory that they will provoke additional court litigation.
Looking only at 10 of the dozens of changes in the law, six million employees will lose the right to overtime pay. Those hit hardest will be low-level supervisors, who will be classified as executives by the new rules, even if they spend 90 percent of their time doing the same kind of labor as the two employees they supervise. Team leaders in factories, construction and office settings will lose overtime rights, and hundreds of thousands of employees without a college education will be called professionals and denied overtime pay.
This is a corruption of the Fair Labor Standards Act and its exemptions, by which Congress intended to ensure that all but a narrow class of well-paid top officials and professional employees would get time-and-a-half pay when they work long hours.
The Bush administration has sided with employer groups, who oppose regulation and resent having to pay extra for overtime work. They want the flexibility to work employees 50 or 60 hours a week without paying any more than they would for 40. One restaurant chain worked low-paid assistant managers 85 or 90 hours a week without any additional pay. The new rules will make that kind of abuse legal.
As we approach Labor Day, founded as part of the original
campaign for an 8-hour workday and a 40-hour work week, it is
critical to speak out against these new regulations. Unless Congress
can block these regulations this fall, millions will lose overtime
pay and find themselves working longer hours. It took 100 years
of struggle to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act and create a
40-hour work week. It has taken the Bush administration less
than four years to turn back the clock.
By Marty Mulcahy
KALAMAZOO - A place to walk and a place to unwind were created for clients at the Jim Gilmore Jr. Treatment Center by Southwest Michigan Building Trades workers.
About 100 feet of new sidewalk, a fountain and some landscaping were installed in July by more than 20 building trades volunteers during the United Way of Kalamazoo's Day of Caring. The volunteers created a path to an outdoor sanctuary at the substance abuse treatment center, and then improved the area with new plants.
The work by the building trades was made as part of a community-wide effort sponsored by the United Way of Kalamazoo, which tries to match up the wish lists of needy agencies with volunteers willing to help. Building trades volunteers spent a full day, and then two half-days working on the Jim Gilmore Treatment Center project.
"The people at the Jim Gilmore center didn't have any blueprints but they had a rough drawing of what they wanted to do," said United Way of Kalamazoo Community Services Labor liaison Lori Stanaszek. "They really needed a sidewalk and they really wanted a fountain. They were getting discouraged and frustrated because they had been looking for someone for over a year to do the work. So I talked to the guys in the building trades and asked if they could get the job done, and they did me proud. It was a true show of character and integrity."
Southwest Michigan Building Trades volunteers hailed from Asbestos Workers Local 47, Cement Masons Local 16, IBEW Local 131, Iron Workers Local 340, Laborers Local 335, Operating Engineers Local 324, Painters Local 312 and Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 357.
"United Way does tremendous work, and this was a chance for us to volunteer our time and to show that union members are glad to give something to the community," said IBEW Local 131 Business Manager Pat Klocke. "We're planning on helping in the future."
Volunteers installed the sidewalk that leads to a garden sanctuary area, along with new plants, mulch and outdoor lighting.
"I can't say enough good things about the work of the building trades people," said Brenda McDonald, human resources manager for the Gilmore center. "They did a great job and everything looks wonderful. You know, sometimes when people do volunteer work here, you get the sense that they would rather be somewhere else. You never got that impression with these guys, they were all so nice."
Gleason, LaSalle to oversee Mighty Mac
Gleason, of Davison, is business manager and financial secretary/treasurer of Iron Workers Local 25. LaSalle, of Marquette, is a field representative for the Michigan State Building and Construction Trades Council. Both were appointed to represent Democrats for a term expiring June 30, 2010.
The authority creates rules and regulations in order to provide
and maintain a system of services to ensure the safe operation
of the Mackinac Bridge. These appointments are subject to the
advice and consent of the Senate.
Work hard. Don't assume anything. Campaigns are expensive. And perhaps most importantly: a lot of work needs to be done to motivate union households to vote in the primary.
Bennett squeaked out a win in the Democratic primary by 83 votes out of 6,500 that were cast. He said the margin would have been much greater if the members of identified union households had turned out to vote on Aug. 3.
"For some reason, people aren't motivated to go to the polls in primaries, but in this case, and in a lot of elections, the primary is probably more important than the general election," Bennett said. "I think one of the main lessons is that we have to do a better job of getting union members and their families out to vote."
Bennett, who retired from his position as business manager at Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 174 in the end of January, moved immediately into candidate mode. He figures he knocked on 4,000 doors and made running for office a full-time job in the six months before the primary.
"I wasn't the only one working to get me elected," he said. "There were lots of individual members who made contributions, from $20 to $500. There were people from our local and from all the building trades who volunteered. There was really a lot of effort expended here, and I'm very grateful." He figured the primary campaign cost about $54,000.
Bennett said he was confident of a victory but had hoped to win by a greater margin against three Democratic challengers. "I worked up until 6:30 p.m. on Election Day and I thought that might have been overkill," he said. "But the people who have experience in elections told me that you never know, and you never stop working. And as it turned out they were right. This was a nail-biter."
The battle to win the 92nd seat isn't over. The district has a strong Democratic base, but as Bennett learned in the primary, a candidate can't assume anything.
"I'm going to work hard to win the general election,"
he said. "If I'm elected, I think I can do some good for
the 92nd District and for organized labor."