Labor switches to defense on legislative agenda

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WASHINGTON (PAI) - After two years when unions and their allies could push a positive legislative agenda - although not always successfully - they're back to playing defense.

And that covers not just legislation but federal regulations, too, says Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO legislative director.

In an interview during the federation's Executive Council meeting here in early March, Samuel explained the new math on Capitol Hill and in state houses around the country means labor will find itself spending more time just to protect past gains.

That's because Republicans control the House and have a filibuster-proof bloc of 47 senators, meaning they can virtually dictate the legislative agenda - after business and the radical right poured millions of dollars into the 2010 election campaign.

"We're going to have defend things we didn't have to defend before, like the National Labor Relations Board," he ruefully says, referring to an attempt by Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., during the House's money bill debate, to eliminate the NLRB.  Price lost.

But, the House GOP still wants to cut the agency's funds by 17.6%

With Democratic President Barack Obama in the White House and the Senate at least in numerical Democratic control, "We're going to be fighting to a standstill - and maybe that's the best we can expect," Samuel says.

Labor will still try to push a positive agenda in the 112th Congress, including more money for infrastructure, passage of legislation to modernize the nation's air traffic control system - minus a pro-worker provision that brings FedEx under the National Labor Relations Act - and spurring manufacturing jobs in green industries.

"First and foremost we need to have a jobs strategy," Samuel adds.  "But deregulation won't create jobs.  Tax cuts won't bring back jobs.  And the job market won't create jobs by itself.  As long as that's the case, government has to step in."

But with the new tea party-led House Republicans in control there, "We'll have to play strong defense even to protect legislation that's already in the books for decades," Samuel says.  That includes job safety and health law, mine safety laws and even the nation's basic labor law, he says.

The day after Samuels spoke, the House GOP provided more evidence of its plan to attack worker protections.  The GOP-renamed House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing on OSHA enforcement - and pointedly did not even invite the OSHA administrator, Dr. David Michaels, a public health specialist, to testify.  Instead, the hearing turned into an assault on the agency.

It's not the only one. 

One big threat, Samuel says, is a GOP brainstorm in the House called the "Reins Act," for reining in regulations.  It would ban any major federal rule, in any area, from taking effect until both houses of Congress adopted it.  If it became law, "Congress would be spending every waking hour micromanaging the government," he adds.

But there will also be efforts to cut Medicare, turn Medicaid into a block grant and slash long-term spending on things like roads, bridges, airports and broadband technology.  And the GOP will couple those with more tax cuts for the rich. 

All this "is more a reflection of ideology than anything else," Samuel says.

At least one positive piece of legislation is emerging, he says: The $38 billion multi-year bill renewing the Federal Aviation Administration and modernizing air traffic technology, switching from 60-year-old radar to a Global Positioning System for controlling aircraft in the skies.  It may be the only one.

"On the other transportation bills, we'll try to make the case for public infrastructure investment" and, if needed, a federal gasoline tax increase to pay for it. 

But with polls showing people favoring spending cuts, "It'll be hard to educate the public for that," Samuel said.

Photo: (John Bachtell/PW)

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