What Unions Really Want: A Stimulus Bill

From the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, a coalition of seven unions that includes the Teamsters union and the Service Employees International Union, passage of a stimulus plan quickly to get the economy going again is a top priority. And they're likely to see an early victory, in part because of a strange bedfellow: Big Business. Industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are pushing hard for the exact same thing.

Makes sense. The stimulus plan that Congress looks to take up next week would provide as much as $100 billion in funding, much of which would be used to build new infrastructure. Businesses want the contracts that the infrastructure investment would provide. Labor groups would see a surge in union-protected manufacturing jobs. Both sides are also pushing for the government to help out U.S. automakers General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

"It's damn important to us," Gary Hubbard, a spokesman for the United Steelworkers, says of the stimulus.

The Chamber has also said it would support the extension of unemployment benefits in some states, such as Michigan, where unemployment rates are high and people are out of work for months at a time.

Nonetheless, don't mistake this rare display of agreement between labor and business as an alliance. "There's nothing that will be done in a sustainable way if we create green sweatshop jobs," says Change to Win Executive Director Chris Chafe. He says he's looking for a "high-road" partnership between the two groups on the stimulus issue.

Stimulus aside, Big Labor's got a handful of other issues on its legislative plate early next year. The American Federation of Government Employees says it's planning an "unprecedented effort" to recruit Transportation Security Administration workers and obtain a collective bargaining agreement for them. The Teamsters union continues to push for a moratorium on the foreign outsourcing of aircraft maintenance, citing security concerns.

Change to Win wants to see greater financial protection for pension plans. Unions are also urging Congress to toughen free trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama before approving them. They don't think these deals, negotiated by the Bush administration, contain adequate labor or environmental standards.

Big Labor spent hundreds of millions of dollars getting Barack Obama elected president--SEIU members alone contributed about $85 million--and they'll expect to be rewarded once his administration sets up shop at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. There's a theory that Congress and the new administration will address some of these issues, putting aside for a while the most controversial items--health care reform and the Employee Free Choice Act, the bill that would make it easier for unions to organize.

Don't count on it. Instead, expect the union organizing bill to be front and center on the legislative agenda.

"Labor's eggs are all in one basket," says Mike Asensio, a labor attorney with the law firm Baker Hostetler, of the bill. However, the measure, also known as "card check" because it would allow unions to organize by workers' signing union cards instead of voting in a secret ballot election, provokes stark opposition from business groups.

That's not stopping labor groups. "We want it taken up early in the year because we think it's so central to the economic recovery," says AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel.

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