The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 29, 2004

More than a century later, labor's political mission hasn't changed much

By The Building Tradesman

Whether George W. Bush or John F. Kerry wins the Nov. 2 election for president, one thing is clear: we live in a divided nation.

We’re constantly reminded about the red and blue states, and the handful of tossup states. I’ve seen plenty of Bush and Kerry lawn signs at homes next to each other. It’s a form of civil war, with brother pitted against brother, neighbor against neighbor – one supporting Bush, the other, Kerry.

I’m sure the same thing has been played out at construction job sites across Michigan, with Bush and Kerry partisans stating their case during lunch and coffee breaks.

The Detroit and Michigan Building Trades Councils have gone on record in support of John Kerry for president. Nearly every construction union in the state operates under the umbrella of the building trades councils, so the choice of Kerry for president reflects the views of local union leadership as well.

No doubt there are some members who wonder why unions get involved in politics especially if their union doesn’t support the candidate they support. In my view, the answer is simple: unions are like any other special interest group that supports politicians who can further their interests.

In the case of construction unions, we support candidates who we feel will best support workers in our areas of interest: job safety, health care, pensions and good wages. More than a century ago, workers joined unions because they wanted fair wages, they wanted an eight-hour day and more for overtime, and they wanted to come home unhurt at the end of the day. Those things are basic to the union movement then and today.

Michigan’s men and women in the building trades can choose to work union or nonunion. We think the smarter ones – meaning the readers of this paper – choose to work union when they began their career because they wanted the best pay, the best training, access to health care insurance, a pension, and a voice in their working conditions.

When you made the decision to join and pay dues to your union, you made a career decision to invest in your future. But many of us take for granted that the things that we hold near and dear will always be there for us. As the song goes, it ain’t necessarily so.

The political landscape is changing for the worse for union members and other working Americans. We know that with the new overtime provisions that were so strongly pushed by President Bush will take away overtime rights for up to six million Americans. And there’s little doubt that down the road, union employers will use that loss of overtime as a bargaining chip against us during negotiations.

Earlier this year, President Bush also signed legislation that helped give pension plans time to reorganize financially after years of losses – but expressly excluded construction union pension plans. President Bush threw out President Clinton’s policy of using labor agreements on federal construction projects. Bush has made it clear that he would eliminate the federal prevailing wage act, if he could muster the votes in Congress.

OSHA’s funding has stagnated under the Bush Administration. OSHA has become less of an advocate for workers in favor of being more of a patron for employers. Early in the Bush Administration he tossed aside a comprehensive plan to improve worker ergonomics that had been years in the making.

In the wake of numerous Enron-like corporate scandals, the president supported rules that place burdensome and costly accounting rules on unions, without placing similar rules on corporations.

In contrast, Sen. Kerry has a near perfect AFL-CIO voting record on issues of importance to unions and working people. Kerry has consistently voted with organized labor on our core issues.

Of course those and other issues that union leaders believe are important may not be as important to our members. Our nation was attacked three years ago and is involved in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of our members may believe that Bush would do a better job of keeping the nation safe. Others may support the president based on his stance on abortion, stem cell research, the right to bear arms, gay marriage, or any number of other issues.

Some of those members wonder why organized labor overwhelmingly supports Democrats over Republicans. My response is that we should start supporting Republicans when they start supporting organized labor’s issues.

The best illustration of organized labor’s support for John Kerry is to look at the endorsement of another special interest group, the Associated Builders and Contractors. The ABC is a nationwide, anti-union group of contractors whose members are consistently underbidding union contractors because of their use of underpaid labor.

It’s not an understatement to say that ABC’s sole purpose is to undermine nearly everything that union construction workers hold dear: wage levels, prevailing wages laws, pensions, training standards and project labor agreements so that their contractors can maximize profits.

This summer the ABC announced that their “number one priority” this year is to help re-elect President George W. Bush.

Aside from pointing out the candidates’ stances on Second Amendment guns rights matters – which has increasingly been a core issue for construction workers – building trades unions must continue to keep focused on which candidates will support our members on health and safety, wages and pensions. Those are the issues our unions were founded upon. And while the world has changed over the last 100 years, some things have remained the same.