Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Seniors Are Ambassadors for Reform

On the second day of the Alliance for Retired Americans’ legislative conference in Washington DC, Teamsters President James Hoffa lauded President Obama and the change represented by the new Administration. He proudly announced that his union had been the first to endorse Obama.

Hoffa made a strong plea for change in trade policies. He said, “Teamsters have lost thousands and thousands of jobs due to bad trade policies. Big corporations got NAFTA and CAFTA, but all the workers got the SHAFTA.”

Hoffa criticized Washington leadership for trying to save Wall Street before the workers. He asked, “Where’s our bailout?” One particular disaster he announced is a $10M shortfall in the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation: “I say let’s give $10B or $20B to PBGC, because that’s what we need.” Hoffa said that Michigan is now suffering with 12.9% unemployment now, “…and the national rate will match it over the next year!”

Hoffa spoke about the need for the Employee Free Choice Act, but the next speaker, Communications Workers of American President Larry Cohen, dedicated most of his presentation to it. The bill that would make it easier to organize unions in America is essential, he said, because, “Without bargaining power, we have no power at all.”

Union negotiations today are all about defense, Cohen said. Very few actual gains are made, and unions are doing their best just to hold on to what they have. Electrical workers who are members of CWA at General Motors are worse off than the Auto Workers union, because they have negotiated some defenses against the bankruptcy procedure. One hundred thousand CWA members are stalemated in their bargaining with AT&T. Health care is a major issue there, but another big problem is different levels of organization in the telecommunications industry. The Employee Free Choice Act would help all workers, including those already in unions.

Larry Cohen said that the anti-union forces are being led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They are focusing their attention on the Democratic Caucus in the Senate, because Republicans are lined up solidly to vote together against even hearing the Employee Free Choice Act. Democrats, including those who oppose the bill, would have to be just as unified to provide the 60 votes necessary to bring the bill to a vote. Cohen said, “Right now we don’t have procedural unity among the Democrats.”

Cohen talked about 70 other countries that have better organizing laws. While the United States dropped from 35% unionization of the work force to 7% (not including the public sector) in 50 years, the South Africans went from almost no unions to 40% of the workforce in less than half the time. They had “card check recognition” which Americans could get with the Employee Free Choice Act. Cohen said that our nation is isolated in the company of such right-wing nations as Myanmar and Saudi Arabia.

In the afternoon, a panel of experts on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid brought the retiree delegates up to date on pending legislation and the intentions of some Congresspersons. They were congratulated on having stopped GW Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security in 2005. Speakers pointed to the drastic drop in the stock market since Bush attempted to move Social Security funds into it.

There are a number of possible attempts to cut the three vital programs now. They are using an attempt to misinform and panic American voters, the panelists agreed.

When not hearing major speakers on this second day, retiree delegates trained in workshops on such topics as:

*State legislative and Budget Advocacy in a Fiscal Crisis
*Building Community-Based Membership
*Grassroots Fundraising Strategies
*Public Speaking and Running For Office
*Finding and Training New Advocates
*Lobbying Congress
*Getting Your Message to the Media
*Yearly Strategic Planning
*Technology and Advocacy

--Jim Lane

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