By Bill Wallace
I would like to thank the Executive Board for sending me to the Alliance for Retired Americans Conference in Washington D.C. It proved to be quite invigorating. The major underlining themes at the conference were:
í- Develop a partnership between retired workers, union and nonunion worker’s and use this strength to insure passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and passage of “real” Healthcare reform.
– To accomplish this in spite of the current political reality.
Teamster President James Hoffa spoke at the conference. He feels Washington D.C. is a strange place. The music never stops and the politicians are insulated from our problems. Corporations no longer have any obligations to workers. The playbook has changed. Pensions and good pay are not in the book anymore. Globalism and the brain washing of Americans make it possible for corporations to shut down and move jobs out of America. “Corporations got NAFTA and the workers got the SHAFTA”. Hoffa asks, “What is wrong with this picture?” Trade policies must be shaped from the point of view of the worker. A promise made should be a promise that is kept.
How do we stop these killer trade policies? First we need to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. Workers in70 countries have the basic rights spelled out in the Employee Free Choice Act, yet American workers do not. The United States has fallen from a high of 35% union membership to a current 7%. We elected Obama to get “card check” and he needs to get the votes to pass it. Al Franken’s victory in Minnesota will give the Democrats control of 60 Senate seats, the number needed to overcome filibusters. This should make it easier to pass health care, Employee Free Choice Act, energy, or other legislation the Obama administration is seeking. But to exercise that strength, the Democrats will need to remain as united in support of a bill as Republicans are united in opposition. Regardless of their regional differences, ideology, or political self-interest, the Democrats must stick together. We, the members of unions, need to become active and put pressure on the President and the Congress to pass it now. We, the workers, must join together and become the most important stakeholder. Listen carefully to what is being discussed and know and understand the true facts.
Healthcare reform, whether a single payer system or through a public option, is a necessity, because the current system of healthcare is unworkable, unsatisfactory and way too expensive. At the present time, we don’t have a debate, we have a stranglehold by the healthcare “stakeholders”. The health insurance companies goal is to fight any reform and maintain maximum profits without any regard to how it affects your and my quality of healthcare.
Treating healthcare companies as primary “stakeholders” is an injustice and a misrepresentation. They are stakeholders, but should be afforded far less status and importance than the workers of America. The false message of the healthcare industry is given more acknowledgment by our political representatives than the citizen’s message of needed healthcare reform. Currently the healthcare industry has hired over 350 former Washington insiders with the intent to influence their former bosses and colleagues to maintain the status quo. They are currently spending more than $1.4 million a day in their lobby efforts for a whopping $126 million in the first quarter of 2009. They defeated previous efforts to reform healthcare with lies and fear mongering and they have geared up for a repeat performance. We must not allow this to happen again.
As a union member, do you sometimes feel like the polar bear and her cub depicted on the T.V. commercial with the ice melting all around them? The security of the union umbrella is melting and shrinking all around us and we need to take a proactive role in stopping the shrinkage and rebuilding to the strength unions once enjoyed. Political strength and union strength are cut from the same cloth.
Our overall strategy should be to rebuild the power of the working class. Which is another way of saying rebuilding union power. In this fight, there is no difference between the worker and the retired worker. We are in this together. The goal should be to build a broader labor movement that will restore our bargaining rights, fight unfair trade policies, increase union jobs, and rebuild the middle class. How can we buy something, if we don’t build anything?
The political reality is that money is still pivotal in the decision making process of our legislatures. This fact has become more and more apparent when politicians place a greater value on corporations, insurance companies and other commercial interests based on these company’s political contributions. On the positive side, dedicated workers involved in a grass root campaign, have been proven to be very effective at times. For labor, this is important because we are in control of our involvement. Remember, it is the issues that are important for us to focus on, not the political party.
Health insurance companies have hired former political insiders to lobby on their behalf. This provides these companies an inside track, but we can’t cry and complain about it, because that won’t get the job done. We know what has to be done. How many of you remember Proposition 226, which was a direct attack on the union’s ability to function as a union? The important thing to remember is that we fought hard to defeat that attack against unions, and we won.
We need to ask ourselves a fundamental question. Is unionism important to our way of life? If the answer is yes—and it is yes—then we need to work together to protect our union rights and secure stronger union laws. Remember that our enemies come for us one at a time. Unions must work together to support other unions that are under attack. If we sit idly by while another union is being destroyed, you can bet they will be coming after us next. We are currently in the biggest fight to preserve unionism since the beginning of organized labor. Sadly many union members have supported union-destroying tactics. We have allowed too many social shirttail issues to distract us from the proper focus. These shirttail issues have not only decreased the strength of unions, they have also removed food from our table and money from our wallet. We need to stay focused on the important issues that we face as workers. Shirttail issues only serve to elect people that want to take away our hard-won gains. It’s time for us to wake up and realize this fundamental fact: It’s all about the money.
As an IBEW 1245 member, you hold a unique position in the community that you live in and serve. You provide a vital service and you hold a unique geographical significance, in that Local 1245 members are able to exert influence over a large number of federal and state legislators. Because of the respect legislators have for you and your union, your voice and its message is of significant value when you speak out on a topic. When you let your legislator know of your concerns, they listen. If enough of you speak out, they will respond positively with the appropriate legislation. If you are unsure how to get started, Labor Councils in your area are actively working on these issues and would love your help. They are well organized and will provide the necessary structure for you to volunteer a small amount of your time.
As a retired 1245 member, I am concerned about retirement issues as well as issues of active members. In many cases retiree/active issues are the same, and we should be working together. Whether for healthcare reform or the employees’ right to choose a union, we must work together and keep ourselves informed of the facts surrounding each issue. It is extremely important we do not allow our selves to be side tracked by shirttail issues that do not put bread on the table. We must be vigilant of issues that take money from our wallet and ultimately diminish our strength at the bargaining table.
I am retired, but my job is not done. We have to make it happen. We have to see that Obama lives up to his campaign promises. Fighting for change means we must get in their face with our needs. It is time to take control of our destiny. Organized labor must regain that strength we once had and make it even greater. Are you ready for some hardball?
Bill Wallace is a member of the South Bay Chapter of the Local 1245 Retirees Club. He is a former member of the Local 1245 Advisory Council.