SILVER SPRING, Md. – Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton supports comprehensive labor law reform. And she says she really means it.
The former New York senator and Secretary of State under President Obama told the AFL-CIO Executive Council on July 30 that “I believe worker power is vital to increasing incomes,” in words she repeated at a subsequent press conference.
“I was an original co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act while I was in the Senate and will do everything I can to pass it” if elected to the Oval Office, she declared.
Clinton was the most-notable of a parade of presidential hopefuls who addressed the council behind closed doors on July 29-30 in the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Md. The others were her top challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt. – who is running in the Democratic primaries – former Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and former Govs. Martin O’Malley, D-Md., and Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., the sole Republican to accept the union leaders’ invitation.
The Employee Free Choice Act, now dead, was labor’s top legislative cause at the start of the Obama administration. It would have helped level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing drives and in gaining first contracts, through card-check recognition, heavier fines for labor law-breaking and mandatory arbitration when first-contract negotiations hit impasses, among other measures.
But big business and right wing lobbying, a Senate filibuster threat and Obama’s decision not to really push it – though he said he would sign EFCA if it ever reached his desk – combined to kill the measure. Labor is now working on drafting an even stronger labor law reform bill, but that would have zero chance in the Republican-run 114th Congress.
Besides EFCA, all five hopefuls discussed workers’ issues, from national health care to trade to raising the minimum wage, with the Democrats mostly pushing pro-worker stands.
Sanders drew a standing ovation when he reiterated his plan to push single-payer government-run national health insurance, replacing the current jury-rigged expensive private insurer-dominated system. He also arrived just after action on that issue: The council voted unanimously the same day to add single-payer to the “Raising Wages” platform that unions and their members will use to evaluate politicians next year.
And while Sanders came out strongly for a $15 federal minimum wage – a bill he introduced the week before – Clinton advocated a raise in the wage, now $7.25, but without naming a figure. But then she gave kudos to a $12/hourly minimum wage bill introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va. “Murray’s very effective at getting things done,” Clinton said. “So let’s get behind a proposal that has a chance of passage.”
And while both Sanders and Clinton said the minimum wage, after the initial hikes, should be indexed to inflation, Clinton also praised cities and states that haven’t waited for the feds, but have raised their own minimums.
“It’s important we set a national minimum and then get out of the way of the cities and states that want to go higher,” such as New York and Los Angeles, she explained.
By contrast, Huckabee, the lone Republican, did not advocate raising the minimum wage. He called for a maximum wage, without defining that, instead. Asked about labor law reform, he said that should be left to the states, because the federal government gets too intrusive. His state, Arkansas, was the first right to work (for less) state, in 1944. One of the immediate effects of the move in that state was to prevent thousands of black workers from being able to join unions.
Clinton also differed with Sanders and O’Malley on trade. Sanders touted his 25-year legislative record of opposing job-losing trade pacts, rattling them off: “NAFTA, CAFTA, PNTR and the WTO,” the latter two being normal trade relations with China and Chinese admission to the World Trade Organization.
Then Sanders vowed to scrap the Trans Pacific Partnership, too. Workers and unions also oppose the TPP, without worker rights and with a secret pro-business trade court that could override state, local and federal laws that might harm present and future profits. O’Malley also opposes the TPP, and both opposed Obama’s fast-track law, which permits such pacts.
“We extensively discussed trade in general and the TPP in particular,” Clinton said. She told the leaders that “at this point, I’m hearing there have been some changes in a direction I might approve” towards stronger worker rights and lessened influence of that trade court.
“I’ve publicly and privately urged the White House to pay more attention to worker rights, environmental protections and the international dispute settlement mechanism,” Clinton said she told the leaders. But she still would not give her stand on fast-track, which is now law.
Sanders blasted “institutional racism,” and said he would as president push against it and for police reform. Clinton and Sanders both blasted the current campaign finance system, which lets corporations and the rich dominate politics monetarily and on the airwaves. Clinton said she would even back a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that let loose the floods.
The council’s session with the contenders is part of labor’s overall endorsement process, which will finish next year. But union leaders at the council session are also using the closed-door meetings – including tough q-&-a to help sort out their unions’ preferences.
The executive board of one union, the Teachers, has already endorsed Clinton.
Weingarten, talking with reporters, defended her union’s early endorsement. In so many words, she praised Sanders, Clinton and O’Malley for their pro-worker positions, but said only Clinton can win.
“As someone who believes you have to fight against the oligarchs, I loved that he used that word,” Weingarten said of Sanders. “This is someone who has spent 25 years” in Con-gress “fighting to change that balance” between the rich and the rest of us, “just as we have.
“But what we need is someone to win to change that balance, and she’s in the best position” to do so, Weingarten said of Clinton.
“Bernie is in line with our issues, top to bottom,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United. “He educated us” on backing single-payer government-run national health insurance, a key NNU cause which the union highlighted in national rallies on July 30, Medicare’s 50th birthday.
“And Bernie said ‘Barack Obama had a campaign about our hopes'” — including enacting labor law reform — and built an organization” to achieve election, DeMoro noted. “But after he was elected” in 2008, “everyone crept away.
“Bernie was saying ‘We need a social movement. We need participation.’ It’s a democracy after all,” said DeMoro, whose union will make its decision in September.
Other union leaders, asked informally after the sessions about which candidate could best relate to regular voters, split.
“Bernie, because he knows people’s lives,” DeMoro said during the Medicare-for-all rally. But another female council member, asked if any contenders can relate, replied “I don’t think so. They’re all pretty much in a bubble.” A male union president said “Huckabee was smooth, but it was like we were on a TV show.” Huckabee has been a Fox commentator. “And O’Malley was a little lethargic, except at the end. Bernie, Bernie, we all love Bernie.”
Before the contenders took the headlines, the council tackled several other top issues, notably immigration and organizing.
The union leaders discussed organizing initiatives focusing on poultry workers, temps, domestic workers, restaurant workers, retail workers, janitors, seafood workers, migrant workers, child care workers, amusement park workers and even pine tree cutters. All are among the huge and growing mass of low-wage no-benefit exploited workers in the U.S. Many of them are immigrants and huge shares of them are minorities, women, or both.
Leaders discussed ways to reach and aid those workers, including state and local campaigns to raise the minimum wage, and a drive to stop wage theft. Reaching the workers includes using more social media and creating more worker centers.
The immigration issue took a new twist: The AFL-CIO is strenuously lobbying the Obama administration to rein in what federation staffers call “a rogue agency,” the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service. ICE agents, staffers said, are in “an all-out war” by still intervening at worksites during organizing drives, when employers call on them for aid.
Photo: Clinton told labor leaders and the press at the AFL-CIO executive council this week that she will push the Employee Free Choice Act, which would overhaul labor law in this country. | AP