3,700 unionists lobby for jobs, health care

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Energized by rousing speeches and armed with reams of data about the impact of U.S. factories’ decline, 3,700 industrial union delegates lobbied lawmakers on Feb. 4 on several key goals: universal health care, revitalizing factories and labor law reform.

The delegates were from the first-ever conference of the federation’s Industrial Union Council. Member unions included the giant United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers, United Food and Commercial Workers, the electrical/electronic/communications union, (IUE/CWA), the needletrades union (UNITE) and the United Mine Workers.

Though no one said so, the council succeeds the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department, abolished seven years ago. Lobbying won’t stop with the D.C. confab, union leaders said as delegates boarded buses to head for Congress.

“Take these goals back home to the radio call-in shows,” urged Jeff Faux, co-founder of the Economic Policy Institute. “I hear all these right-wing drunks on them as I drive around the country: ‘Tax cuts for the rich. Cut Social Security.’ Where are our drunks?” he asked, to laughter.

Chanting an old union song, Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts challenged the delegates to keep asking lawmakers “Which side are you on?” on issues ranging from trade treaties that export U.S. jobs to a GOP tax plan that encourages U.S. industries to migrate overseas.

“And we ought to say that no country can compete with a 14-year-old workers earning 14 cents a day in an unsafe factory spewing pollution into the air,” Roberts said. Plant closings and. industrial decline, have cost 5 million factory jobs since 1979, half of them in the last four years. It also had other impacts:

• “Manufacturing created the middle class” after World War II, Faux said, and rising factory employment pushed up real wages not just in factories but nationwide.

• AFL-CIO staffer Gerald Shea argued delegates should push for comprehensive universal national health care. Without it, he said, U.S. unionists must compete against workers in developing nations with no health benefits or workers in other industrial nations where the government pays health care.

Recalling IUE’s two-day strike in mid-January against GE on health care, Shea added: “They struck for everybody ... who faces this health care threat,” and that’s not just the 42 million uninsured, but an equal number who could lose insurance due to high costs.

“In autos, rubber, transportation and the service sector, contracts are up this year for 1.25 million workers, and health care will be front and center of those talks,” he said.

But collective bargaining won’t solve the problem of companies with health care competing unsuccessfully against those without. That calls for national legislation, Shea added.

“How do you overcome drug company lobbying?” against national health care, Shea asked. “Tell them the truth. Tell them what’s happening in bargaining. Talk about the problems your retirees have with prescription drug costs.’”

• Federation trade specialist Thea Lee told delegates to campaign against trade treaties that, like NAFTA, will cost more U.S. jobs in another race to the bottom. The Bush administration wants to extend NAFTA to the entire Western Hemisphere, even though it has cost hundreds of thousands of factory jobs since its enactment, she noted.

“Tell them: ‘No more trade agreements that weaken our workers here at home,’“ Lee said.

• Labor law specialist Cecily Counts said labor law reform should be the delegates’ third lobbying goal, both in D.C. and at home. That includes not just creating a level playing field for the right to organize – because organizing and collective bargaining leads to workers’ gains – but also lobbying against anti-labor judges Bush has or plans to nominate.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the GOP-run House Education and the Workforce Committee – Republicans dropped “labor” from its title – said party strayed from being the party of working people. As a result, in the last election, workers stayed home, or voted against their interests, for the GOP, Miller contended.

“We have to speak out for the 90 percent being left out by the Bush administration,” said Miller.. “And your union presidents have made it clear that this is so fundamental that the agenda of this (Democratic) party must be the agenda of working families – that no longer can labor be an ATM” for campaign contributions.