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Workers’ Advocates in Congress Rejuvenated After Election Setback

An ill-advised tax cut. Badly needed election reform. Prescription drug coverage for seniors. A trade pact that will hurt workers throughout the Western Hemisphere. Safe, ergonomically correct workplaces.

They’re among the issues raised in fiery speeches by members of Congress and other advocates for working families at CWA’s annual Legislative-Political Confer-ence in Washington, D.C., in late April.

The advocates aren’t in charge right now — not in the White House, the Senate or the House of Representatives. But they made one thing perfectly clear: Being the underdogs has made them fight even harder for workers.

“The momentum is on our side,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) said, to raucous applause. “Stick with us. Stick by the principles we have. We need to have the energy and commitment to fight for what’s right and what’s fair for America’s working families and the future of their children.”

More than 600 CWA local officers and legislative coordinators from across the country came to Washington for the four-day conference. Each weekday started with speeches and seminars, then members went to Capitol Hill to talk to senators and representatives about workers’ issues.

In an opening day address, CWA President Morton Bahr told participants that they had the power to change the course of government, recalling the last time Republicans held the House, Senate and White House.

“The year was 1954,” Bahr said. “That was also the year I was elected local union president for the first time. We changed the political structure the next year, and that’s what we need to be working toward today.”

CWA Secretary-Treasurer Barbara Easterling said the 2001 conference “may be the most important one we’ve ever had.”

“More is on the line than at any time in our history,” she said. “Not just our members’ jobs and livelihoods, but their quality of life and every worker protection we have come to rely on over the last 70 years.”

‘Irresponsible’ Tax Cut
Speaker after speaker said President George W. Bush’s proposed 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax not only won’t help workers, but it will hurt the country in the long run because important social programs will lose funds and America’s debt will grow.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) recalled his days in the Senate in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan pushed through his massive tax cut, a time when interest on the federal debt was $40 billion.

“The workers paid for it,” Kennedy said. “The interest on the debt went from $40 billion a year to $300 billion. And that’s the first $300 billion of the federal budget. That doesn’t buy a prescription drug. It doesn’t buy a schoolbook for a child. It doesn’t purify the air or clean up the streams.

“That’s $300 billion and you’re not only paying for it, you’re paying for higher interest rates if your kid goes to college, if you buy a car, if you buy a home. That is the legacy of the Ronald Reagan tax cut and we’re being asked to do it all over again. We learned our lesson once. What we need to do is provide relief for working families.”

Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a national coalition, also recalled the aftermath of the Reagan tax cut. “Subsidized, affordable housing was cut,” he said. “Programs relating to quality public education were cut. Ketchup became a vegetable.”

He said what Bush has proposed "is nothing short of the final death blow to the New Deal concept, a social contract between government and its people. The truth is that $1.6 trillion in tax cuts will suck up every conceivable dollar that might have been available for discretionary spending, and it will make it impossible for the federal government to respond to the needs of the people."

The tax cut would give back more than $46,000 a year on average to America's wealthiest citizens, the top one percent of taxpayers, once the plan is fully phased in. America’s poorest citizens would get nothing, and middle-class families would get only several hundred dollars in relief.

Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), the daughter of a Teamster and a mother who toiled 10 to 12 hours a day in a Mattel factory, said it’s a fallacy to believe that the rich Americans would use their windfall to buy new cars and other luxury products that would stimulate the economy.

“The wealthy aren’t going to spread the wealth,” Solis said. “In my district, the average income is $31,000 a year, and that’s for four people in a family. They get zero from the tax cut. They want the money to stay in education, they want it used to clean up our water and environment and to make sure that worker safety protections continue.”

Speakers said they would support a lesser tax cut that provides real relief to working families and isn’t based on shaky projections 10 years into the future.

“We should move at a much slower pace,” said Rep. Karen Thurman (D-Fla.). “We shouldn’t be giving tax cuts until the money’s in the bank and we can pay for them.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said it’s simply irresponsible. “We’re saying that it’s too much,” she said. “We’re fighting hard to be the fiscally responsible party.”

Health Care
Kennedy, in particular, addressed the ongoing fight in the health care arena, from a patients’ bill of rights to prescription drug coverage, universal health care and a battle to protect the Family and Medical Leave Act.

“We’re the only industrialized country that doesn’t have guaranteed health insurance — except in the United States Senate,” Kennedy said. “And we’re the only industrialized country without paid family and medical leave.”

Kennedy said too many people can’t afford to leave their jobs when family members are ill. Still, he said, FMLA is a big step in the right direction. “But now we have in the United States Senate legislation that increases restrictions (on FMLA),” he said. “We see those forces out there. And I say, “No, we’re not going to let them do it.”

But he said Congress needs workers to make a lot of noise. “I was there in 1964 when we battled for Medicare.

“We lost by 16 votes. We came back nine months later and carried it. The seniors had made their voices heard. That’s where you all come in.”

Speaking about a patients’ bill of rights, Kennedy said all people have a fundamental right to have medical decisions made by a doctor, not HMO administrators. “If you go to the doctor and your doctor thinks it’s in your medical interest to treat you with a certain kind of procedure, that’s what must prevail, not what some bean counter thinks a hundred or a thousand miles away,” he said.

Worker Safety
Speakers universally expressed anger over the rush by Bush and GOP leaders to repeal the federal ergonomics rule as a favor to big business.

“Is it so radical to ask an employer to give notice to employees about dangers in the workplace?" Lieberman asked. “Is it so radical that the employer provide a work environment, a work station, in which men and women who work to turn out the products that earn the profit are safe from injuries that can debilitate the rest of their lives? It sure isn’t. Yet, there they go, siding with the powerful against the people.”

Speakers said workers’ safety and living wages are
top priorities. “Is it too much to ask to expect a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work?” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) asked. “Are safe working conditions a luxury?”

Both Lowey and Lieberman got loud choruses of “no’s” in answer to their questions.

Bahr said the Republican’s rollback of the ergonomics standard “was the most brazen payback to business” since Bush took office and began reversing a string of worker-friendly initiatives put in place during the Clinton administration.

“The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers complained that the regulations were too costly,” Bahr said. “You heard that over and over again on the floor of Congress. But there was not one single word about the cost in pain and suffering for the millions of workers who suffer repetitive motion injuries. Or the millions more who will suffer because of this action."

Election Reform
The voting and ballot-counting controversy in Florida and scores of lesser-known problems that affected elections across the country must never be repeated, speakers said.

Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe talks about the Florida mess every chance he gets, and told the CWA crowd that it rankles Bush.

“I saw President Bush the other night. He was very cool to me,” McAuliffe said. “I said, ‘Mr. President, I know you’re bothered by what I say about Florida. I’ll tell you what: I’ll stop talking about Florida when you invite me to the Rose Garden for the signing of true electoral reform.”

McAuliffe and others said reform not only means upgraded voting machines and uniform ballots, but changes in law and policy to ensure that minority voters are treated fairly at the polls.

He noted how state police patrols parked at many minority precincts in Florida, giving the appearance, at least, that they were trying to frighten away voters. And minority residents were asked for far more identification than other voters. “If you were a white male, you could walk in with a library card,” McAuliffe said. “That is voter suppression. That is voter intimidation.”

Henderson, of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said people seem to have stopped talking about election reform in recent weeks.

“Right after the election, there was a huge debate about voting rights. Now that the dust has settled, what has happened? Nothing.”

He called for monitoring and enforcement at the precinct level to “guarantee that everyone who has the right to vote has their vote counted.”

Trade Issues
Several speakers touched on the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, which CWA, fellow unions, environmental groups, civil rights activists and others are fighting. The agreement, scheduled to be in place by 2005, creates a free trade zone among 34 countries in the Western Hemisphere, all but Cuba.

“This is NAFTA times 10,” said CWA Executive Vice President Larry Cohen, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement that cost tens of thousands of American jobs and has led to dozens of polluting factories with poverty-wage jobs just over the Mexican border.

FTAA has been negotiated in secret with no input from labor unions or other concerned groups. “There is not one good thing about FTAA for working families,” Cohen said.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said FTAA and similar trade pacts put America’s freedom and independence at risk. “When your job is threatened by offshore production, rock-bottom wages and a lack of environmental and labor standards, where has our independence gone?” she asked.

She recalled a recent conversation with a friend, a skilled machinest who expressed concern about job losses and other bad economic news. “He said, ‘Marcy, are we going to leave our children a fast-food, drive-thru, video-game, soda-pop, shopping-mall, disposable, how-little-do-you-want-to-work-for, service economy?”

“My fundamental rule is ‘free trade among free people,’” Kaptur said. “If a people don’t have labor rights that give value and dignity to their work, if a people don’t have environmental rights to protect children and working people from poisonous water, dirty air or dangerous conditions, they are not truly free."

The Union’s Role
CWA members can make — and have made — a huge difference in how workers are treated in political matters, every speaker said. But change doesn’t occur only at federal levels. Working for living-wage city ordinances, for instance, and fighting for pro-worker county commissioners, school board members, state representatives and governors is critical.

“You have a tremendously important role to play,” said Celinda Lake, head of a polling firm whose presentation illustrated the impact union members had in Election 2000, even without winning the White House. She said polling shows that Americans consider unions “the most credible spokespeople” on domestic issues such as health care and tax cuts.

Kelly Young, president of the 21st Century Democrats, urged CWA members to get involved in “grassroots, neighbor-to-neighbor” campaigns. Her organization looks for emerging leaders in town councils and other boards and commissions across the country.

Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend, Maryland’s lieutenant governor, said union support in her state has sent many pro-worker candidates in the legislature, making it possible to expand collective bargaining rights for state employees.

She noted that Vice President Al Gore won Maryland by 17 points — largely because of momentum that had built up when voters re-elected pro-worker Gov. Parris Glendening in 1998.

“We had galvanized such a force two years earlier,” Kennedy-Townsend said. “People were excited about politics. They were excited about going to the polls. People at a grassroots level knew the election was important. And when you do well one year, that carries into the future.”