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By Jaclyn Diaz
The United Steelworkers is sharpening its focus on political activism as it faces a deluge of anti-labor legislation, Tim Waters, the union’s political director, told Bloomberg BNA.
Delegates to the United Steelworkers convention in Las Vegas approved a resolution April 10 making it a priority to help members get elected to public office. They believe that’s the most immediate way the union can fight employers’ and politicians’ efforts to weaken the labor movement.
That resolution included a goal to establish a nationwide program to educate and train members to run for public office. The program is set to begin later this year.
It’s about getting union members to run and fight for workers’ rights on a local level, Waters said April 11.
The Steelworkers and other unions have expressed concern over state right-to-work laws and a move in Congress to establish such a law nationwide. Organized labor is also tracking minimum wage, overtime and trade issues, among others.
The Steelworkers will be reaching out to unions in each of its districts across the country to educate members on the ins and outs of running a campaign. The yet-to-be-named program—or “candidate school,” as Waters called it—is still in the planning stages.
“We want them to come and learn about it and see if they’re still interested after learning about what it takes. We think they will be,” he said.
Rewriting the rules of the economy is crucial to bringing about change for workers, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told Bloomberg BNA April 11. The best way to do that is to have people who are affected by the current economic rules run for office, he said.
It’s not impossible for union workers to run and win, he said. “In fact, it’s more likely because they understand the people they want to represent.”
In New Jersey, for example, 915 union members have run for political office on the local, county and state levels, Trumka said. That was done through the New Jersey AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education, which created the Labor Candidates Program in 1997. The program recruits, trains and assists union members in running for public office.
Other organizations are pushing average Joes and Janes to run for local office. Vote Run Lead, a three-year-old organization, offers free webinars and other training aimed at educating and preparing women to run for political office.
Diverse voices are needed in politics on the local and national levels whether it’s that of a steelworker, social worker or teacher, Shannon Garrett, who co-founded and chairs the board of Vote Run Lead, told Bloomberg BNA April 12. “It’s time we bring in our own experiences to the table.”
Prior to the 2016 presidential election, the organization’s training webinars would get maybe a dozen participants, she said.
“Now we’re in the thousands and we have waiting lists,” Garrett said. She predicts that trend will continue as more people are interested in getting involved in politics after November’s election and as older politicians age out of office.
Tom Eyler, a grievance chairman for Local 8-00031 in Union Bridge, Md., said he has never imagined himself running for office. None of the 117 members of his local have ever run for office either, he told Bloomberg BNA April 12.
Eyler said his interest was piqued after learning about the planned program.
“I’d be interested in learning more. There is definitely change needed,” he said. “We need more people to put foot to ass and pen to paper.”
What stops average people from running for office? “Fear mostly,” Eyler said. Regular workers from a small union such as Eyler’s don’t picture themselves in those political roles, he said. Still, many union members are heavily involved in their communities in other ways.
The average person also doesn’t know where to start, Garrett said. “Nowhere in our normal lives do we learn how we run for office,” so knowing where to start is intimidating, she said.
A lot of members are activists for worker rights and other causes but only see themselves as working behind the scenes, Waters of the Steelworkers said. The union wants to put the seed in their members’ minds to seek more.
“We have a lot of members that are really good at working on the other side of the campaign and have done it for a long time. They’ve never been that person to seek the limelight,” he said. “It becomes difficult to imagine themselves in that role.”
The Steelworkers will prioritize this program and will invest a lot of resources into getting it started, Waters said.
“Should we have started earlier? Yeah maybe we should have started decades ago, but that doesn’t mean that should stop us from starting now,” he said. “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Las Vegas at jDiaz@bna.com
Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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