Labor's legislative agenda includes stimulus, Employee Free Choice Act and more

WASHINGTON (PAI)--With the new Democratic-run 111th Congress convening on Jan. 6, and with larger pro-worker majorities, labor has assembled a legislative agenda that starts with the Employee Free Choice Act and a massive stimulus bill, but doesn’t stop there.

From the right to sue companies for sexual pay discrimination to the right of public safety workers to collectively bargain to rewriting the basic federal aid to education law, unions have a list of legislation they’re ready to push.

While the Employee Free Choice Act will be the top cause of workers and their allies – including seven leading consumer groups – it won’t be the first issue to come up. So unionists are conducting a massive 16-state campaign operation to convince constituents of its economic need, and to have them pressure wavering lawmakers. The goal: Get the bill to the desk of President Barack Obama by Labor Day.

Their drive is designed to counter an expensive business ad campaign against the legislation. The bill is designed to help level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining. But business calls EFCA “Armageddon.” De-parting Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, head of the nation’s largest, virulently anti-worker firm, says the present system has “us in the driver’s seat” and “we won’t yield the wheel.”

In planning strategy to pass the bill, “We need to have more GOP support than Specter,” for the Employee Free Choice Act, says AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel, referring to Senate co-sponsor Arlen Specter, R-Pa. “With Obama (an EFCA backer) in the White House, we and Obama will reach across the aisle for it.

“And without George W. Bush there, some moderate Republicans may feel free to support us. It’s been a long time since they’ve been able to behave like moderates without being called on the carpet,” Samuel adds. The GOP president hates EFCA.

But the first two items to come up will be the stimulus package to counter the deepening second Bush recession and the Senate Labor Committee’s Jan. 9 hearing for Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., Obama’s nominee to be Labor Secretary.

Just behind, says Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., now a member of the House leadership, will be the Lilly Ledbetter bill to restore the right of workers – women, minor-ities and others – to sue firms for pay discrimination at any time, not just only in their first 180 days on the job. It would overturn a Supreme Court ruling outlawing suits.

“The major priority is the big economic recovery bill,” costing $500 billion to $1 trillion over two years, Samuel told Press Associates Union News Service. And even with increasing demands from around the country for a slice of the stimulus dollars, “It’s very possible there will be enough money in it to meet all the pressing needs,” he adds.

“This is a longer-than-normal recession,” Samuel says. “So the government could commit resources to projects that could be ready in six months, nine months or a year,” besides focusing on immediate needs, he explains. “It could be done in phases.”

Pieces of the stimulus bill, which Obama aides and congressional Democratic leaders are working on, would include:

* Extended and expanded jobless benefits. With unemployment at 6.7% in November and expected to continue upwards, Samuel says the extension will be a part of the stimulus package. Long-term, Congress needs to revamp the unemployment insurance program so it covers more jobless people, and aids them more. Only one-third of the unemployed now get benefits, he points out.

* Infrastructure projects, and specifically those projects that not only help rebuild, the nation’s roads, runways, bridges and schools, creating tens of thousands of jobs, but also make them “greener” and enhance energy efficiency. That combination is a key goal of both Obama and, for a long time, the Steel Workers. Other unions have signed onto the “green jobs” effort.

Just after the election, the Laborers starting running an ad campaign with a call to “fix our roads and bridges, and build the new rail, and renewable energy we need.” It urged viewers to tell Congress and Obama to “build America so America works.” “America’s workers need paychecks, not stimulus checks. Jobs building America are too good to keep losing them,” Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan added.

The American Federation of Teachers are also on board. New AFT President Randi Weingarten, in her first major address in November, said rebuilding and modernizing the nation’s aging school buildings, while making them energy-efficient, would help create jobs, help save energy and help students learn.

Aid to state and local governments, especially to help them shoulder health care costs. This is one of the shorter-term items in the stimulus package, and one of the most-pressing. The states face a mountain of rising Medicaid bills and declining revenues as more people lose jobs and health care. California’s treasurer, for example, said Dec. 31 his state may run out of money by February and be forced to issue scrip.

“The jobs and economic recovery plan includes additional federal resources for the vital health care and family services states and localities provide. We’re talking about law enforcement, education, health care and other vital services. These programs are particularly important during difficult economic times,” says AFSCME President Gerald McEntee. His members are already out campaigning for the stimulus.

After the stimulus, Solis, and the Lilly Ledbetter bill will come the two biggest battles for workers and their allies: The Employee Free Choice Act and health care.

“The incoming administration is taking health care seriously,” Samuel says. “Our principles tend to mirror what the president-elect has announced: Access for all, affordability, and workers will have a choice of their own doctors.”

But like the fight over the Employee Free Choice Act -- where business is marshaling millions in its advertising campaign against the labor law -- neither Samuel nor unions underestimate the wealth and guile of the health insurance companies, the nation’s most-profitable industry. They’re determined to beat health care.

Obama doesn’t underestimate them, either. His Health and Human Services Secretary nominee, former Sen. Thomas Daschle, is already convening nationwide town hall meetings and using the Internet to mobilize support for revising health care, which is one-sixth of the U.S. economy. Other items on labor’s agenda include:

* Collective bargaining rights for public safety workers. A key cause of the Fire Fighters, this will be a top item on the AFL-CIO’s agenda, too, says Samuel. The House passed it last Congress, but a Senate GOP filibuster-by-amendments killed it.

* Rewriting Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law, which both Obama and the nation’s two teachers unions strongly criticize for its rigidity, its tilt to private schools and its “teach-to-the-test” mandate – and for lack of funding.

* Using the Congressional Review Act, which lets Congress kill agency rules within 60 days of “finality,” against some of Bush’s “midnight rules.” Samuel says a top candidate for CRA use is a Bush rule that makes it harder for workers to show they’ve been exposed to toxic chemicals on the job. Womens’ groups are pondering how to overturn Bush’s rules weakening the Family and Medical Leave Act.

* Enacting paid sick leave and also the “Respect Act,” legislation overturning the Bush National Labor Relations Board’s “workers are supervisors” ruling.

* Trade, though Samuel says this will not be a top Obama priority, “especially in the midst of a recession.” Obama and labor agree on writing future trade pacts to include workers’ rights in their texts, and for tougher enforcement against violators.