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New House labor caucus set to give unions a hearing

Date Posted: March 22 2019

LANSING - When organized labor wants to raise its voice, the Michigan Legislative Labor Caucus will lend its ear.

That's the plan of the new Labor Caucus chairman, State Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City), who rolled out his plans for the group at the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council's Legislative Conference on March 5.

Elder said by his count, 93 out of the 110 Michigan House seats are in majority working class districts, where the majority of its voters do not have college degrees. And a Democrat only represents 37 of those seats.  Even though Dems picked up five seats in last November's election, Republicans still enjoy a 58-52 majority in the state House.

"When some think of you as just an ATM, instead of partners in policy, the time for a labor caucus has come," Elder told building trades delegates. "We are building out this labor caucus for you. We will carry your water and make sure your voices are heard. We will seek your input on a legislative agenda - not after that agenda has been decided, not as an afterthought, but starting with page one. Because we need to listen to you. To work with you. To in fact represent you."

Labor is getting this love for one simple reason: its members vote. "You have the right to demand that we reflect your views and your priorities, because our people, our voters - your membership - are the ones who produce in elections for us," Elder told delegates. 

Elder said if a district is a working class district, then that district needs to ensure that the candidate is representative of the working class - whether that candidate is a Democrat or Republican.  He said he didn't think a labor caucus had existed for at least a couple of decades. 

At the building trades conference, House Democratic Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) read the names of 24 state House members who are also union members as she spoke approvingly of the new caucus.

"The other thing we launched in this legislative session is the labor caucus," Greig said. "For the four years I've been here it's always been defense, defense, defense. We're done with that. This is about going on offense, again, and talking about the agenda where we're working people at the center of those policies. 

"We're going to work with our stakeholders and come up with proactive, worker-positive legislative packages, and we're going to need your help to get the word out, and helping us spread it across the state. Because when you hear labor's story, you appreciate and understand that's how Michigan was built, and that's how this country was built."

Other members of the House Labor Caucus include Rep. Ronnie Peterson (D-Ypsilanti); Rep. Sara Cambensy (D-Marquette), and Rep. Kevin Hertel (D-St. Clair Shores).

Elder pointed to last year's vote in the Legislature that started the process of building a utility tunnel under the Mackinac Straits to contain the Line 5 petroleum pipeline . It would cost in the neighborhood of $500 million in an area that could use the work, and create hundreds of building trades job. But Democratic lawmakers hardly leaned in with their support.

"When the Line 5 bill only gets 14 Democratic votes in the state House, we need a labor caucus," Elder said. "When the Sierra Club's scorecard means more to some Democratic members than the position of the building trades... it's time for a labor caucus."