Thursday, September 25, 2008

When Your Union Contract Expires -- Who Do You Want in the White House?

by Art Perlo

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — As 4,000 workers at Yale University gear up for a contract fight next year, and 2,000 workers at Yale New Haven Hospital continue their organizing drive, the question of who will be president looms large.

Asked “Who do you want in the White House when your union contract expires?” the answer was near unanimous for Barack Obama.

“I just know in my gut that Obama is interested in the well-being of common working people, and McCain is interested in the well-being of big business,” said Susan Klein, a worker in Yale’s library system.

Her gut feeling is echoed by a report on the AFL-CIO web site: “Obama backed working family issues 95 percent of the time in the U.S. Senate, while Sen. John McCain — who voted 95 percent with Bush against working family issues — sides with wealthy bankers and Wall Street.”

Ernie Thompson, a dining hall worker at the university, reflected on the coming contract negotiations. “We’re losing power every minute the Republicans are in office.” Most of his co-workers support Obama, but a few still need to be convinced to vote, said Thompson, who carries voter registration forms with him on the job. “They don’t believe in the political system. They’ve been had too many times.”

For those co-workers who are confused by extremist ads portraying Obama as unpatriotic and inexperienced, Thompson brings the facts about the candidates’ voting records. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm among the African Americans. Some white guys in the skilled trades had no problem with Bush, but a lot are coming over to our side because with the Republicans, unions and job security are out the window,” he said.

Tammy Porter, who works in the hospital cafeteria, supports Obama because “he’s down with the union.” Co-worker Mamie Evans said, “We’ve gotta have Barack to survive.” These workers, who have been trying to organize the hospital’s other departments into the union in the face of illegal management intimidation, are most concerned about passage of the Employee Free Choice Act to back up workers’ right to organize. Obama is a co-sponsor of the EFCA. McCain voted against it.

Food service worker Ray Milici described the stakes: “If we get a pro-labor president, we can change the labor board. We can pass the Employee Free Choice Act. McCain is anti-union. If McCain wins, there’s no chance for the rest of the workers at the hospital to get a union.”

Yale workers are also worried about protecting their health benefits. Their hard-won union contracts include full family health coverage at no cost. McCain’s health care proposal would tax those benefits, costing Yale workers up to $3,500 per year.

Union spokesperson Evan Cobb described this as “adding tax burden to us while shifting taxes off the wealthiest Americans.”

Unite Here, the parent union, was an early endorser of Obama. “It’s important to our international union to support a candidate who believes health care is a right,” said Cobb adding that McCain’s proposal would weaken the excellent health plan now enjoyed by union workers at Yale.

Cobb also addressed presidential appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. He cited the NLRB’s decision, under Clinton, affirming graduate teachers’ right to union representation. But the labor board appointed by Bush revoked those rights. At Yale, graduate teachers are still struggling for recognition.

After winning the congressional elections in 2006, “there’s a much greater sense of hope,” said Cobb. Union members are volunteering in Virginia, as well as locally. “People are aware of the relation between the federal election and the local impact at the community level.”

“The Republicans are stockpiling military weapons, but there’s nothing for heating assistance, schools, crime, environmental cleanup,” said Ernie Thompson. “We’ve lost all our afterschool programs, summer jobs for kids. The Republicans say there’s no money, but they bail out the financial companies.”

Obama’s experience as a community organizer who stresses workers’ involvement is encouraging to the Yale unions, who emphasize membership involvement to organize co-workers and build alliances with the New Haven community,

The unions say their commitment to organizing will continue after Election Day, providing grassroots muscle to pass EFCA.

Milici thinks the election outcome will have an impact on workers’ attitudes: “If McCain wins, the employer will feel empowered. If Obama wins, the workers will feel empowered.”

Thompson agreed: “We need a victory. If Obama wins, people will say we’ve got a voice now.” This will help mobilizing the membership for the next contract negotiations.

Reprinted from the People's Weekly World

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Connecticut labor gears up for big election drive

By Joelle Fishman

July 10, 2008

HARTFORD, Conn. — Lightening storms may have kept national AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s plane from landing here in time for the Connecticut AFL-CIO convention June 23, but nothing could stop the delegates’ determination to prepare for their strongest mobilization ever in the 2008 elections.

“We’re at a turning point,” said state AFL-CIO President John Olsen, calling on everyone to go out and organize. “We got the House and Senate back in 2006 and now we have to get the presidency back so we can win the Employee Free Choice Act, universal health care and an energy policy like the Apollo plan.”

Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd was warmly welcomed by the delegates. Decrying the disparities in America, he lauded the labor movement for hard fought battles for workers’ gains “not given benevolently by corporate America,” and passionately called for an all-out push to elect Barack Obama on Nov. 4.

Saying he hopes the Employee Free Choice Act will be the first bill on the new president’s desk, Dodd emphasized that “this election will determine what kind of country, what kind of world, we leave to our children and grandchildren … We can’t afford four more years of Bush.”

The convention unanimously adopted a resolution reaffirming opposition to the war by national and state labor bodies, and asserting that Obama “shares labor’s opposition … while John McCain supports the war and President Bush’s military policy.”

The resolution urges unions to inform their members “of McCain’s pro-war position and how it is directly related to his anti-union economic policies; and how the continuation of the war is fueling the current economic crisis.”

Bill Shortell, representing the Machinists Union and the Bristol Labor Council, recalled asking, when the war began, “Is this an issue for us?” to which his buddy replied, “Who’s going to speak for me if the union doesn’t speak for me?” Shortell called on the delegates to “take a strong position and back candidates committed to get us out of Iraq and end this bloodshed as soon as possible.”

A heated debate took place over the endorsement of Jim Himes, a pro-labor, antiwar Democrat challenging incumbent Republican Chris Shays (4th Congressional District), a leading proponent of Bush’s Iraq war policies. Shays was the only representative from Connecticut to vote for additional funding of the war last month. He had angered the endorsement committee during an interview in which he objected to a question on the war, saying, “Why are you asking me about that? That’s not a labor issue.”

Delegates from the Building Trades said Shays helped get them contracts and work, and therefore asked that the endorsement for Himes be withheld.

AFSCME delegate Blair Bertaccini got a round of applause when he called on the convention to “support candidates who support us as a class, as workers, not just one particular sector. Otherwise we will keep losing numbers and become irrelevant.” Himes won the endorsement overwhelmingly.

The convention also committed to help Democratic Reps. Chris Murphy (5th CD) and Joe Courtney (2nd CD) return to Congress. They both defeated Republicans in 2006 and have been targeted by the Republican National Committee for smear attacks.

Speaking to delegates from the 3rd CD, which she represents, Rep. Rosa DeLauro thanked the labor movement for enabling her to win by large majorities. “With big margins I can take on the strong fights, which those with small margins many not feel free to do,” she said, referring to the vote against further funds for the war.

Delegates signed up for the Labor 2008 program, including speaking to members in their workplace and at home. Signatures were collected on postcards for the Employee Free Choice Act which will be presented to the new president in January.

A moment of silence honored prominent union leaders who recently died, including Merrilee Milstein, former District 1199 vice president and then deputy regional director of the AFL-CIO, known for her dedication and commitment to organizing and building diversity within the labor movement.

The convention adopted a strategic plan for the elections and legislative and organizing goals. A Diversity Dialogue will be held Sept. 20 with the aim of developing new union leaders. AFL-CIO representative Barbara Nicole Holtz urged delegates to attend, projecting the conference as a model for other states.

Reprinted from the People's Weekly World

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