THE AFL-CIO’s executive council meeting is this week, which means visits from presidential candidates: Martin O”Malley, Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb, and, of course, Hillary Clinton, who has a 1pm date with the union federation tomorrow.
There’s also a sole Republican visitor: Mike Huckabee. AFL-CIO’s president, Richard Trumka, along with progressive economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who is leading a discussion on economic policy at the meeting, talked about what they’re looking for in the 2016 contenders, and what the next president can do for the middle class.
The focus, Trumka and Stiglitz say, is on determining how serious candidates are about wanting to ‘rewrite the rules’ of the economy. This is a deliberate echo of the title of a report Stiglitz and a team at the Roosevelt Institute released a couple of months ago, which argued that tackling rising inequality and slow growth means more than redistribution.
The problem is that the economy is fundamentally broken, shot through with opportunities for the rich to get richer not by building wealth but through exploitation and taking. Increased regulation of the financial sector, reforms to copyright and patent law, and other changes to the way markets work are needed, not just more taxes and spending.
‘The economy is nothing but a set of rules,’ Trumka says. ‘The rules are made by the people we elect, and the president has the biggest bully pulpit there is. We want someone who’s committed to changing these rules for working people, and we’ll be endorsing the person who’s most likely to make that happen.’
When asked which of these rules is more important to change first, Stiglitz demurred. We need to rewrite all of them, and I don’t think there’s any necessity of doing one at a time,’ Stiglitz says. ‘In fact, I would say it’s more helpful if we undertake a number of things simultaneously.’
But he did single out one, perhaps unsurprisingly given that he was speaking in the context of a union meeting: increased collective bargaining rights. Obviously that and many other changes on the union’s agenda require congressional action, as well. So how important is a president, really, especially if Democrats hold little hope of retaking the House next year?
‘Some of what can be done requires congressional action, but a lot of this is set by tone, is set by executive order,’ Stiglitz says. ‘In a broad democracy such as ours, there are many ways of trying to go about this enormous challenge of rewriting the rules.’
Stiglitz also emphasised the importance of executive agencies’ implementation powers: ‘It’s not just writing the rules, it’s also how they’re interpreted and how they’re enforced.’ Trumka and Stiglitz are also interested in the president’s role in shaping the Federal Reserve. The Fed shouldn’t all come from Wall Street or the financial industry,’ Trumka says. ‘We’d like to see other people with varying backgrounds on the board as well.’
He also wants presidential appointments that emphasise the ‘full employment’ side of the Fed’s mandate, in addition to its duty to fight inflation: ‘Janet is one of the first heads of the federal reserve to say she has two jobs, and she’s focusing on full employment. We’d like to see that on various regional Feds.’
Mike Huckabee, alone among Republicans, made the cut for the executive meeting today and tomorrow. We submitted a questionnaire to all the candidates who have declared,’ Trumka says. Mike Huckabee was the only Republican that submitted the questionnaire, and thus he was invited to come.’
In 2008, Huckabee stood out from his peers as left-leaning on economics, and it appears that at least rhetorically he’s willing to speak labour’s language in a way that other 2016 Republicans aren’t. I won’t agree with the AFL-CIO on everything,’ he wrote in a Daily Caller post explaining the visit, ‘but I do agree that American workers have been getting punched in the gut and kicked in the teeth.’
Realistically, though, the federation’s choices come down to two: Bernie Sanders, who has been a union stalwart his whole career and enthusiastically embraces the agenda Trumka and Stiglitz are pushing for; and Hillary Clinton, who, while economically progressive, isn’t the AFL-CIO dream candidate that Sanders is.
It’s a choice that requires weighing Sanders’s superior (from a union standpoint) stances on the issues against the fact that Clinton is said to be going to win the nomination, and that declining to endorse her could jeopardise unions’ sway in a Clinton White House. Pressed about this, Trumka appealed to procedure: ‘First the affiliate unions will talk to their members, then they’ll endorse, then the federation will come to a decision.
‘Each affiliate union will have to, before they endorse, go back and find out from their rank and file where they want them to be,’ he said. ‘I’ve encouraged every affiliate not to do any endorsement until they’ve find out from their members where they want them to be, so they’re giving voice to that membership.’
• Privatisation of three public hospitals in Hawaii will cost hundreds of employees their bargaining rights and impair their contracts, an AFSCME union local claims in court. Governor David Ige signed HB 1075 into law as Act 103 in June, allowing privatisation of the Maui Memorial Medical Center, Kula Hospital and Clinic, and Lanai Community Hospital, all on the island of Maui.
The United Public Workers, American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, Local 646, AFL-CIO sued the governor on August 6 in Federal Court, claiming the law impairs workers’ contracts and violates the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.
‘House Bill 1075 provides that, upon completion of such a transfer, the employees performing work in these facilities will lose the protections of public employment and shall not be governed by state laws that apply to public officers and employees of the state,’ which ‘substantially impairs the obligations of … collective bargaining agreements,’ the union says in the complaint.
The UPW/AFSCME represents 1,500 members at Hawaii Health System Corporation-managed facilities, including the Maui public hospitals. The union claims the state ‘was well aware of financial problems at HHSC’s Maui regional system at the time it entered into its binding, valid, enforceable contracts with UPW.’
Hospital workers ‘were hired and retained in accordance with the merit principle through a statewide merit system. Under the merit principle, employees were afforded reasonable job security, and when layoffs occurred, senior employees retained the right to bump junior employees not just within the healthcare facilities affected, but in any other governmental entities within the system.
‘The union says the law should not be implemented at least until the state’s collective bargaining agreement expires. The Legislature could have made HB 1075 effective only upon expiration of the existing collective bargaining agreements,’ the union says.
‘The rights, protections and benefits provided by the CBAs to employees in Unit 1 and Unit 10 are guaranteed for the entire length of the contract.’ Those agreements expire on July 1, 2017. HB 1075 stated that leadership of Maui healthcare facilities and the ‘unions representing employees of the facility or facilities shall meet to discuss the impact of a transfer on the employees and the feasibility of tampering the adverse effect of layoffs by amending the employees’ collective bargaining agreements.’
It also requires the private management firm to ‘offer all employees of the pre-transfer facility employment for a period of no less than six months after the transfer completion date,’ and states that ‘no employee of the (healthcare facility) who is separated from service as a result of implementation of an agreement and transfer under this part shall suffer any loss of any previously earned rights, benefits or privileges.’
Two major health care organisations, Hawaii Pacific Health and Kaiser Permanente Hawaii, have expressed interest in managing the Maui public hospitals. Proposals are due by August 24 and transfer could begin next year. Ige called the bill ‘a historic opportunity to transform the delivery of health care to the people of Maui’.
The bill’s author, House Speaker Joseph Souki, called the bill ‘absolutely essential for Maui residents’.
‘The financial situation for Maui Memorial was not sustainable for the short or long run, and what we are doing today will open the doors for a vital public-private partnership to keep Maui’s hospitals open and to most importantly provide the appropriate and quality care for the people of Maui County,’ Souki said.
Maui Memorial Medical Center, the only non-Oahu hospital that provides a full range of cardiac services, including open-heart surgery and angioplasty, lost more than $43 million last year. The governor, Hawaii Health Systems and the Maui region board of directors would make the call on granting control of the Maui hospitals to Hawaii Pacific Health or Kaiser.
The union seeks a temporary restraining order and injunction to stop the governor from implementing HB 1075/Act 103 before the collective bargaining agreements expire. It also seeks declaratory judgment that the law violates the Contract Clause of the constitution. The office of the governor said the attorney general is reviewing the complaint. The union is represented by Rebecca Covert with Takahashi and Covert.