October 2015

Making State Politics Work for Us

The National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) met this last August in Seattle for its annual summit. Members of state senates and assemblies from across the United States gathered to share ideas and pass resolutions on issues confronting the states. The Iron Workers were there alongside organized labor to speak up for workers in our industry. We went to stay informed, build relationships and take stock of what is at stake in the vital state elections this November and the next.

State elections matter to ironworkers. The U.S. federal government might be larger and better funded, but it is state governments that get to decide how most federal dollars for highways, schools and other construction projects are spent. Governors appoint people to boards and commissions that set standards and priorities in construction across the state. State legislatures can pass laws to benefit workers—or take our rights away. Most state governments aren’t stuck in quite as much partisan gridlock as the federal government in Washington, D.C., so work can actually get done.

If we ignore state politics, we will lose ground. Corporate America has worked aggressively in recent years to pass laws that swell their profit margins at the expense of workers, consumers and small businesses. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a well-funded anti-union organization acting as a clearinghouse for anti-worker bills. ALEC attracts state legislators to lavish summits, wines and dines them, and sends them home with model anti-union bills to introduce in their home legislatures. 

Organized labor is not taking this sitting down, and successfully defended workers several times during the conference. Union allies defeated a resolution that would have endorsed Investor-State Dispute Resolution (ISDR) in free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. ISDR is a way for multinational corporations to stop states from passing laws protecting workers. Labor allies stopped a resolution that would have made it harder for states and the federal government to fund projects during economic downturns. By being there, union representatives made our voice heard and our impact felt.

Local 86 (Seattle) Apprenticeship Coordinator Greg Christiansen addressed the Workers’ Voice Conference about innovative pre-apprenticeship programs the Iron Workers operate in the state of Washington. He discussed the Trade-Related Apprenticeship Coaching program at the state women’s prison in Gig Harbor, Washington, which fights recidivism by training inmates for careers in the building trades. For more information on TRAC, visit http://bit.ly/1KkVQL1. Christenson also spoke on a panel about the challenges and opportunities presented by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), a federal law affecting local apprenticeship programs.

ALEC and other anti-union lobbyists have forced bad laws like right to work and prevailing wage repeal through state legislatures across the country. Even in this hostile environment, though, progress is being made. Several states have passed laws this year to protect voter rights and fund infrastructure projects. Some have even expanded workers compensation and prevailing wage. We can gain ground if we use the right organization and strategy. The Iron Workers joined discussions at Workers’ Voice and NCSL about how to move forward on issues affecting our jobs like trade, the environment and apprenticeships. We made sure state legislators heard from us on important issues, not just from ALEC.

Our work doesn’t end with this conference. Good laws pass when we get our friends into office, and bad laws pass when we sit elections out. Will we be growing over coming years, or fighting for our lives? Important elections will take place in several states this November, especially in Kentucky where there is serious danger of the state going right to work. Even more states will have elections in 2016. In the next election, get informed and get organized. Most important, get out and vote!