Political Horizons for Dec. 16, 2012

As the “union boss” of Louisiana, Louis Reine says he has watched for years as organized labor is demonized. So, the president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO said he wasn’t as surprised as others have been by the assault on the working man since the Nov. 6 re-election of President Barack Obama.

The U.S. House of Representatives, for instance, voting along party lines, passed legislation that would overturn a National Labor Relations Board decision effectively denying employers the ability to delay a unionization vote by their employees.

The biggest news came last week when the Republican-dominated state government in Michigan ­— whose heavily unionized voters backed Obama by almost 10 percentage points — proposed, passed and signed within six days, a law that allows employees to opt out of paying dues to organized labor.

Michigan is the 24th right-to-work state. Louisiana was one of the first.

“Its sole intent, whether stated or otherwise, is to weaken organized labor. That’s what this all about,” Reine said about right-to-work laws.

Unions allow workers to speak as a group and some employers would rather deal with employees one on one, Reine said. “Individually, employees have less of a voice than they have together,” he said.

Chambers of commerce, the Louisiana Chemical Association, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, as well as other business-oriented groups, all tell their dues-paying members that as a group their positions carry more weight with elected officials, he said. “A lot of what you see happening is trying to take away that voice from workers,” Reine said.

For instance, civil servants are so legally isolated from the political process, they can’t even plaster a candidate’s bumper sticker on their personal cars. But during the last legislative session, and likely during the next few, Louisiana Republican lawmakers will be pushing laws that will impact the benefits, job security and retirements of tens of thousands of state government employees.

“Their union is their only voice in the process,” Reine said. “Some of the folks would just as soon us be out of their way.”

One thing that management and organized labor do well is train workers, he said. Together they direct the training programs and curricula to provide the well-rounded craftsmen industry needs.

“We know there is work on the books. From the plant managers to the economic development people, to the chambers are all telling me, and are convinced, that we’re going to need like 20,000 additional trained workers for the projects they already know are going to happen, particularly in the southern part of the state of Louisiana,” Reine said.

For instance, he said, a contractor can pay less to a worker who knows only how to install light switches. But once that task is completed, the contractor has to go out and hire someone else to put in the outlets, Reine explained.

At the end of the day, it’s cheaper to pay more to a worker who has received well-rounded training, than to someone who has been shown how to do a single task, Reine said.

Still, last week Gov. Bobby Jindal told the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution that unions have acted “shameful,” apparently for trying to block his public school voucher program in court. He neglected to mention that school boards and their members also are plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of how Jindal is spending taxpayer dollars.

Reine said he recognizes that Jindal needs the scare of a bogeyman to energize his supporters and that the governor has a well-paid cadre of communications specialists to spin information.

On the other hand, “We’re not very good at publicizing what we do,” Reine said.

Firemen shake a boot on street corners to raise money to fight muscular dystrophy. But it’s the fire department which gets the credit, he said.

“Actually, it’s individual firemen. It’s a union activity. Those are union members. It’s the same guy you go to church with; the same guy who’s coaching your little league team. These are the same people you’re cussing as ‘the union,’” Reine said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.