Union leader-turned-lawmaker says new Congress will work for workers
Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J. | Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

WASHINGTON (PAI)—The House committee that handles most worker issues will definitely vote in the next Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, a veteran unionist, lawmaker and representative who sits on the committee says.

“As a member of the Education and the Workforce Committee, we’ll have a very different attitude” towards workers and unions than the hostility of the panel’s GOP majority for the last eight years, adds Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., who for years headed the South Jersey Building and Construction Trades Council.

And he adds that includes not just raising the minimum wage, but also reinstating, through legislation, the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board’s effort to make joint employers – think McDonald’s and its local franchise holders – jointly responsible for obeying, or breaking, labor law. The new Trump-named GOP NLRB majority dumped that idea.

In an exclusive post-election interview with People’s World, the Camden, N.J., resident and Electrical Worker-turned congressman drew on his experience in both D.C. and the New Jersey legislature to make predictions about what the panel will do legislatively when it comes under Democratic control next year. Raising the federal minimum wage heads the list.

“At some point, we’ll raise the minimum wage. It hasn’t been raised in 11 years,” Norcross says. He also expects the panel to pass a bill to reinstate the Obama Labor Department’s expansion of overtime pay eligibility. The GOP Trump DOL scotched expansion.

Besides reinstituting the pro-worker rules, Norcross expects the committee to preserve the Davis-Bacon Act and its guarantees of payment of locally prevailing wages to workers on federally funded construction. Killing Davis-Bacon – and cutting building trades workers’ pay – is a favorite GOP cause. Construction unions have rounded up bipartisan majorities to keep it.

Congressional Democrats, adopting at least part of labor’s “$15 and a union” theme, have talked about raising the minimum to that level over a period of years. But any federal minimum wage hike, from the current $7.25 hourly, faces White House opposition.

“A federal minimum wage is a terrible idea, terrible idea,” Trump National Economic Council Chairman Lawrence Kudlow told a Washington Post-sponsored forum on issues facing small business, the week before the election. “On cutting a deal with the Democrats, my view is ‘no.’”

Kudlow declared a national minimum wage hike “will damage particularly small businesses, to force them to take a kind of payroll increase,” and his conversation indicates he opposes a federal minimum at any level. “Idaho is different than New York. Alabama is different than Nebraska That’s why the federal minimum wage doesn’t work for me.”

Kudlow admitted, however, that “I can’t speak for the president.”

In absence of congressional action, more than half the states raised their minimums. So have 42 cities. The latest, on Election Day via referendums, were Missouri and Arkansas.

“If we could give a trillion and a half dollars to the wealthy in a tax cut for the rich, we should be able to raise the minimum wage,” Norcross responds to Kudlow, a tax cut for the rich supporter.

As an Electrical Worker, Norcross also expects the panel to seek ways to expand apprenticeship programs, one of his favorite causes. Trump also says that’s one of his goals, but advocates a way that duplicates already-successful training run by construction unions.

The unions train most of the nation’s apprentices, and the U.S. is heading for a shortage of construction workers as current workers, most of them from the “Baby Boom” generation, keep retiring. Hispanic-named immigrants fill part of that gap, but Trump wants to eject them.

“Everybody thinks high school graduates these days need 4-year college degrees,” or more, Norcross says, to enter and move up in the working world. He states that in many cases apprenticeships are equal or better. He’ll push that view in committee sessions next year.

“In apprenticeships, you go, you come out of the training program with an apprenticeship (certificate), good pay, a guaranteed job at the end” as a journeyman or journeywoman “and no college debt,” Norcross points out.

The panel’s agenda for 2019 has yet to be set. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., an African-American, will take over the committee from right-wing Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., a white Southern Trumpite who, when she ascended to the top job, infamously told North Carolina media that she doubts unions are even necessary.

Though Scott hasn’t laid out his plans yet, or discussed them with Norcross or other members, the Virginian is the original sponsor of the Wage Act, crafted with the AFL-CIO to rewrite federal labor law and make it more worker-friendly.

The measure would legalize voluntary recognition – card-check – of unions with a majority of NLRB election authorization cards, dismantle many employer roadblocks to organizing and first contracts and increase fines for company labor-law breaking, among other ideas. It’s sure to draw extreme business hate and a well-financed corporate PR campaign.

And workers may face one fewer extreme hater come Jan. 3: Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.

King is known for his rabid red-meat rants against Hispanics. But he’s also the most-extreme anti-construction worker solon and the Davis-Bacon repeal sponsor. And King’s in a too-close-to-call race in northwest Iowa against late-surging progressive, and pro-labor hopeful J.D. Schotten, one of the many first-time female Democratic candidates running this year.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.