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A Sunnier Forecast for Unions at the State Level

5 months ago
Chris Ferrari
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Thanks to gains made in the 2018 election, Unions finally have friends in state government

Credit: ucommblog

IBEW activists have an extra spring in their step walking the halls of America’s statehouses this year. 

For many of them, last November’s elections were a shot of adrenalin in the battle for good jobs, workers’ rights, health care, economic security and the laundry list of quality-of-life issues affecting working people.

Like the wave of new voices in Congress, pro-worker candidates picked up more than 300 seats in state legislatures around the country. They held onto the power they had, while gaining control of one or both chambers in five states and winning full veto-proof supermajorities in Illinois, California and Oregon.

And in seven states, governors hostile to workers and unions were replaced in 2018 by leaders who are charting a new course.

“When we say elections have consequences, we mean good consequences as well as bad,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. “In just a few months’ time, we’re seeing the ripple effects of our votes and it gives us a lot of hope going forward.”

For a longer look, he pointed to progress in New Jersey under Gov. Phil Murphy, who was elected in 2017. “Voters were fed up after eight years of a governor attacking unions and workers,” Stephenson said. “As a candidate, Gov. Murphy made bold promises to working people and he’s been living up to them since the day he took office.”

Electing worker-friendly politicians is only half the battle. Holding them to account is the longer, harder task, but, as you’ll read here, that’s exactly what IBEW members are doing.

Labor’s battles are more daunting in red states, where bills to reverse union-busting right-to-work laws, for example, never see the light of day in GOP-controlled committees.

But by picking their fights wisely, IBEW activists and union allies are making bipartisan inroads on lesser-known bills important to members, such as the level of training required for licensed workers in the building trades and the urgent need for tracking contractors guilty of wage theft.

What follows are snapshots of the IBEW’s political efforts and successes in seven states, a sample of the exhaustive work going on around the country on members’ behalf.

“We may not like it, but politics is intertwined with everything we do,” Stephenson said. “Whether it’s statehouses, city hall or Congress, there’s no separating what happens there from our commitment to safe workplaces; to jobs that make tuition and vacations possible on top of the bills; to secure retirements, quality health care and everything else our members deserve.”

New Mexico

The anti-union billionaires meddling in state politics around the country thought they’d found a way around New Mexico lawmakers who refused to pass a statewide right-to-work law.

In late 2017, they started bankrolling city and county campaigns for local right-to-work ordinances, schemes that the IBEW and labor allies fought at every turn.

The outside agitators had prevailed in 10 counties and a village by early 2019 and were pushing for more.

Then New Mexico’s pro-worker legislature and its new Democratic governor pulled the plug.

In a major victory for unions, a law passed and signed in March invalidates the existing right-to-work ordinances and bars local governments from enacting more.

“Stopping the spread of ‘right-to-work-for-less’ efforts in New Mexico is an excellent example of what we can achieve when we all come together,” said Carl Condit, business manager at Albuquerque Local 611.

He drew a direct line between the victory and the message voters sent at the polls last November.

“The foundation for success was laid by the hard work we did leading up to Election Day, and by the union members and their families who turned out to vote overwhelmingly for pro-labor candidates,” Condit said.

Voters deepened the worker-friendly majority in the House, held onto a 26-16 advantage in the Senate and secured executive support by electing Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

When Grisham signed the bill at the Capitol on March 27, IBEW leaders were by her side.

In media coverage, her spokesperson was blunt: State law trumps local law, and “New Mexico is not a so-called ‘right-to-work’ state.”

IBEW members helped make sure of it.

Illinois

With the first stroke of his pen as Illinois’ governor in January, J.B. Pritzker dug a trench between his agenda and his predecessor’s notorious four-year assault on unions.

“Instantly, on Day One, he signed an executive order putting project labor agreements back in place,” said Josh Sapp, business manager at Decatur, Ill., Local 146.

“He said it was time to give working families their voice back and the days of not respecting working men and women were over.”

Pritzker also gave state workers a raise that day, took action to prevent wage theft and promised there was nothing theoretical about the revived PLAs – that long-overdue road and building projects neglected by the last governor would finally be funded.

That means jobs for IBEW members, and it was key to Illinois locals’ support for Pritzker last fall.

“We worked hard on the Labor 2018 program,” Sapp said of the phone banks and canvassing that led not only to Pritzker’s win but to worker-friendly supermajorities in the House and Senate.

With Democrats short of a veto-proof majority in the Statehouse the past four years, ousted-Gov. Bruce Rauner was able to kill a teachers’ pay raise, among other bills.

But enough pro-worker lawmakers stood with unions to thwart Rauner’s push for a statewide right-to-work law. And now, with the seats that IBEW activists helped gain in 2018, “it’s effectively dead,” Sapp said.

Sapp is making the 35-mile trip to Springfield at least once a week to help labor fight for bills that would create jobs and safeguard members – from spending on infrastructure to S.B. 1407’s call for apprenticeship training for workers at chemical plants and others the bill classifies as hazardous materials worksites.

At the Capitol, he said, “it feels like a weight’s been lifted – there’s no more gridlock.”

He hopes it helps members see how much their vote matters.

“There’s a huge difference now, and I like to think that everybody recognizes why that is,” Sapp said. “My job is to promote the IBEW and get work for us, protect our jobs and our health insurance and our pensions.”

In other words, as he likes to say, “Vote your paycheck.”

Virginia

Bills that degrade what it means to be a journeyman in the building trades are becoming a staple of red-state legislatures around the country.

If not for a lone Republican and the tenacity of IBEW members who helped persuade her, one such bill would have sailed through the Virginia Senate this year.

Sen. Jill Vogel “was the last one standing when it went to the floor,” said Jason Parker, president of both Newport News Local 1340 and Virginia’s Building and Construction Trades Council. “She faced the wrath of her own party to say ‘no.’”

Like similar bills in other states, S.B. 1169 would have doubled the duties of journeymen on jobsites by letting employers assign each of them two apprentices to train and supervise. Current law requires a 1:1 ratio – the minimum ratio mandated by Local 1340’s contracts, Business Manager Jeff Rowe said.

The bill also sought to redefine “journeyman” in a way that allows trades workers with less instruction and experience to claim the title.

Collectively, such language takes aim at the ability of skilled union labor to compete for work, threatening the livelihood of IBEW electricians and members of other union trades.

But above all else, it puts workers’ safety at risk.

That merited no more than a verbal shrug from the senator who introduced the bill, as Parker witnessed during a Labor and Commerce Committee debate.

“His remark was to the effect of, ‘You’re going to have accidents’,” he said.

Republicans clung to the bill despite the fact that IBEW signatory contractors and others with good reputations didn’t push it. “I think there’s just a handful of bad players” who  persuaded the GOP to back them . As hard as the IBEW and its allies tried, they couldn’t sway anyone in the party but Vogel.

“We’re very appreciative of her stance,” Parker said. “I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her. We took our entire lobbying team in there when it was done and over and thanked her for looking out for workers and the young Virginians coming into the trades.”

Just one seat divides the parties in both Virginia’s House and Senate. All 140 seats are on the ballot this November, giving pro-worker candidates a shot at the majority in each chamber.

When the 2017 vote was counted, control of the House of Delegates came down a single contested ballot cast in one of Local 1340’s own districts. A drawing decided the race. The Republican whose name was pulled sponsored the House version of S.B. 1169. 

It’s a story Rowe expects to tell more than once leading up to the Nov. 5 elections.

“Anytime that we can help affect change, we like to educate our members about it and make them aware that political action means something,” he said. “This is a really good case to demonstrate that.”

New Jersey

One of the rare states with legislative elections in odd-numbered years, New Jersey lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy have had nearly a year and a half to show constituents what a worker-friendly government can get done.

Their long list of accomplishments includes a “millionaire’s tax” for people earning over $5 million a year; new tax relief for working families; a $15 minimum wage by 2024; a consumer financial protection bureau; and a law allowing virtually all workers to accrue paid sick leave – life-changing legislation for more than 1 million people whose employers offered no such benefits.

It’s a stark contrast to former Gov. Chris Christie, Murphy’s predecessor, who infamously spent eight years attacking workers’ rights, demonizing public employees in particular and starving their pension fund. Murphy is working to restore it.

He is also investing heavily in job training and innovation, and has established an Office of Apprenticeships in the state labor department. Factoring in improvements to health care, schools, transit, infrastructure, clean energy, voter protection and more, he is cutting a broad swath through issues affecting working families.

“This governor is behind the working men and women of this state,” Newark, N.J., Local 1158 Business Manager Joe Calabro said. “He understands that the health of the economy can’t be measured just on Wall Street. It must be felt on Main Street as well.”

Democrats supporting Murphy’s pro-workers agenda hold a supermajority in the General Assembly by a single seat and control the Senate 24-16. All seats in both chambers are on the ballot this November.

New Hampshire

Paying a prevailing wage on state-funded construction is the law in New England. Everywhere, that is, but New Hampshire, where the Legislature repealed in it 1985.

Now, with new worker-friendly majorities in the statehouse, there’s momentum to bring it back.

The IBEW and the rest of New Hampshire’s building trades have “prioritized the passage of a prevailing wage bill in this legislative session,” said Denis Beaudoin, business manager at Dover, N.H., Local 490.

Voters cleared the way last November by breaking up the state’s Republican hold on state government, turning over control of the 400-member House and 24-member Senate to lawmakers who are listening to labor.

“S.B. 271 would give our contractors a level playing field,” said Beaudoin, who has testified in favor of the bill. “I think on state-funded projects, taxpayers deserve to have the job done right the first time, on time and under budget.” 

Since the repeal three decades ago, wages and benefits on public works projects in New Hampshire have declined steadily, said Joe Casey, a Second District international representative for building development.

For many workers, it makes more sense to commute out of state. “Construction workers in Massachusetts easily make 20 percent to 30 percent more,” Casey said. “The impact on New Hampshire’s construction work has been devastating.”

It’s not clear what Republican Gov. Chris Sununu will do if a prevailing wage bill lands on his desk. But there’s cause to be hopeful, given what IBEW activists and fellow unions achieved in 2017 when the GOP held all the cards in state government:

“We beat back right-to-work,” Beaudoin said.

The state Senate passed the union-busting bill, but labor’s exhaustive battle against it led to defeat in the House.

IBEW members approached the 2018 elections with the same can-do attitude, persuading voters to elect candidates who put workers first.

And that means, after 34 years, that prevailing wage has a shot at being resurrected in New Hampshire.

Texas

Red-state holds on the House, Senate and governor’s office are the steepest hills for unions and allies to climb in the fight for working people. But that isn’t deterring IBEW members in Texas.

In fact, says Mike King, president and assistant business manager at Austin Local 520, members are more engaged than ever.

On a Wednesday in March, a large IBEW contingent went door to door at the state Capitol, talking mainly with Republican lawmakers and their staffs.

“We’d only be there five minutes if we just went to the progressives,” King said.

In addition to Local 520, the delegation included members from San Antonio Local 60, Waco Local 72, Corpus Christi Local 278 and the central Texas building trades.

While standing with the Texas AFL-CIO in supporting a $15 minimum wage, more money for schools and other key issues critical to working families, IBEW members zeroed in on a little-known bill with bipartisan appeal.

Introduced in the Texas House and Senate, the bill would create and maintain a database of contractors fined for wage theft, retaliating against employees who seek unpaid wages, breaking workers’ compensation rules and other related violations. 

Armed with strong arguments about financial accountability and employers’ duty to workers, “we spent a lot of time making a push for that with conservative legislators,” King said.

They came away feeling they’d moved the needle, and they’re considering strategies for other pro-worker legislation.

Local 520 has seen a surge in political action and greater solidarity overall, King said, since rolling out an education program that teaches members how to bring their voice to state and local politics, and what power in numbers can accomplish.

He noted that 600 red T-shirts signifying unity in bargaining with NECA contractors practically flew out of their shipping boxes in March. Gone are the times when King recalled, “I had to borrow someone to help me carry the IBEW banner” at rallies and parades.

“Our local’s absolutely come alive,” he said.

Connecticut

Solar energy projects are creating lots of work in Connecticut, but not necessarily for the people best equipped to do it.

That’s why the IBEW is pressing state lawmakers to pass H.B. 6630, requiring workers who install solar systems to be licensed electricians with apprenticeship training.

Current licensing for solar work “is pretty much a sham,” cheating skilled workers and consumers who think that’s what they’re paying for, for said Mike D’Amico, a Second District international representative and political coordinator in Connecticut.

“No one’s policing it,” said Dan McInerney, a Bridgeport, Conn., Local 488 executive board member who represents the IBEW and NECA on the state’s Labor Management Cooperation Committee.

Fly-by-night companies that claim to have an electrician in every crew are more likely conglomerations of roofers, carpenters and other laborers, many with limited experience. “They may have 70 employees and only seven of them are licensed,” McInerney said.

Ten years ago, he testified against the bill letting workers with 4,000 hours training – as opposed to IBEW’s 8,000 – get a PV (photovoltaic) license. Today there are just 23 license-holders, a fraction of the people doing the increasingly complex work.

“Solar photovoltaic systems installed today are much larger, more intricate, and hazardous than those installed in 2009,” Paul Costello, NECA/IBEW training director in Connecticut, told a House committee in February.

IBEW members are making those arguments and others as the solar industry fiercely fights the bill. For now, lawmakers have agreed to study the issue.

Propelled by the get-out-the-vote efforts of IBEW and labor allies, Connecticut voters upped the odds for workers last November.

They fortified the state’s Democratic trifecta, sending 10 more worker-friendly lawmakers to the Connecticut House and an additional four to the Senate, breaking an 18-18 tie. They also elected a governor who pledged support for unions.

“We have the ear of more lawmakers than we did last year,” D’Amico said. “That’s always a step in the right direction.”

Artboard%202 - A Sunnier Forecast for Unions at the State Level

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