1/21/08

Power-tripping AFL-CIO backs state income tax

Massachusetts unions' political goals for 2008 reflect hope and fear.

For the last seven years, unions on the national level have been on the defensive, given the anti-labor tendencies of the nation's highest political leader. Meanwhile, the past year in Massachusetts has been the best in some time for labor, with the first Democratic governor in 16 years making at least some efforts to help unions out.

So it may seem odd that, as Massachusetts union leaders look toward the coming year, they are planning for a bold move to increase union power on the national stage while also bracing for a big defensive fight on the state one.

'Absolute Insanity'

The state-level fight is against the ballot initiative to repeal the income tax, and it's a fight union leaders seem baffled that they even have to engage in. State AFL-CIO Legislative and Communications Director Tim Sullivan and Massachusetts Teachers Association President Anne Wass both independently described the ballot measure as "absolute insanity." They say it would decimate the state's roads and bridges, slash funding for schools and generally wreak havoc on the quality of life in the state. Labor leaders seem to feel voters won't want to face that kind of situation, but, just to make sure, they are planning some serious persuasion campaigns.

Meanwhile, at the national level, unions are poised to fight for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would let workers join a union when a majority of them sign union cards. The proposed law would be an end-run around the current system of National Labor Relations Board elections, which many unions have essentially given up as impossible to win.

"I think what this is going to do is take away management's ability to intimidate and frighten workers, and scare them basically into backing away from supporting the union," said Jim Durkin, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, which represents workers in Massachusetts and three other states.

Currently, Durkin noted, it typically takes six months or more from when workers file for an election to the actual vote. In that time, unions allege that managers call employees into their offices and demand they not support a union, threaten to close down operations if workers vote yes and use other tactics that have proven effective in avoiding unionization.

The House of Representatives passed the act last year, but it got hung up in a filibuster by Senate Republicans and a promised veto by President Bush.

Getting Out The Vote

Realistically, the act probably won't become reality in 2008. The unions' hopes for it depend on getting the Democratic Party into the Oval Office, and probably also increasing its numbers in the Senate. So, this year, labor will be focusing hard on elections. Some unions have already endorsed one of the three major Democratic presidential contenders, but all seem ready to line up behind whoever wins the party's nomination.

Harris Gruman, Massachusetts political director for the Service Employees International Union, said SEIU members from the state headed for New Hampshire to work for John Edwards in the primary but were not at all distressed to see members of other unions supporting the other candidates.

"That was clearly something that people of goodwill could disagree on," he said.

That won't be labor's perspective on the contest in November. None of the Republican candidates has a record that labor likes, and unions are gearing up for a serious fight. Members will go door to door in New Hampshire and Maine, urging members of Massachusetts-based unions to vote for the Democrat. They'll make phone calls and take buses to whatever turn out to be this year's swing states. They'll do whatever they have to do, because, ballot questions notwithstanding, the unions' best hope right now is to have someone in the highest office in the country who likes them as much as the person in the highest office in Massachusetts.

(wbjournal.com)

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