Dick Meister: Two big tests for labor

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By Dick Meister

 Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Helping get President Obama re-elected tops organized labor's political agenda. But for now, unions are rightly focusing on special elections this month in Wisconsin and Arizona, where other labor-friendly Democrats are being challenged by labor foes.

Coming up first, on June 5, is the Wisconsin election to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who's been labor's public enemy No. 1 for his blatant anti-union policies. He's been acclaimed by anti-labor forces nationwide and as widely attacked by labor.

Both sides see the election as highly symbolic, a possible guide for those seeking to limit the union rights of public employees and other workers or, conversely, for those attempting to halt the spread of Walker-like attacks on collective bargaining in private and public employment alike.

There are many reasons for replacing Walker with his recall election opponent, Democratic Mayor Thomas Barrett of Milwaukee. The AFL-CIO has come up with about a dozen reasons, headed by Walker's severe limiting of the bargaining  rights of Wisconsin's 380,000 public employees – a key action that helped trigger what Obama has described as a national "assault on unions."

The AFL-CIO also complains that Walker has:

*"Led Wisconsin to last place in the nation in job creation."

*"Disenfranchised tens of thousands of young voters, senior citizens and minority voters with voter suppression and voter ID laws."

*"Put the health care coverage of 17,000 people at risk with unfair budget cuts."

*"Allowed the extremist, corporate-backed American Legislative Council to exercise extraordinary influence."

*"Made wage discrimination easier by repealing Wisconsin's Equal Pay enforcement law."

*"Attacked public workers' retirement security."

*"Blocked the path of young workers to middle class jobs by repealing rules on state apprenticeship programs."

*"Killed the creation of more than 15,000 jobs when he rejected $810 million in federal  funds to construct a passenger rail system between Milwaukee and Madison."

*"Sponsored new tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations that will cost the state $2.4 billion over the next 10 years."

*"Proposed cuts to the state's earned income tax credit that will raise taxes on 145,000 low-income families with children."

Despite all that – and more – polls show the recall vote could go either way, with lots of campaign funding for Walker flooding in from  corporations and other union opponents across the country.

Unions have lots of tough campaigning ahead, as they do in Arizona. There, on June 12, a special election will determine who will serve in the Congressional seat held for three terms by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords. She resigned in mid-term this year while still recovering from the serious wounds she suffered during a 2011 shooting in Tucson in which six people were killed.

Ron Barber, a Giffords' staffer who was wounded in the Tucson attack, will challenge Republican Jesse Kelly in the race to elect a representative to serve the rest of Giffords' term. Kelly, who ran a close losing race against Giffords in 2010 , opposes  much of what the AFL-CIO supports.

The labor federation is especially unhappy with Kelly's support for GOP proposals in Congress "which would turn Medicare into a voucher system," and for getting $68 million in federal stimulus funds for his family's construction firm while at the same time attacking Obama for creating the stimulus program.

Apparently, says the AFL-CIO, "Kelly lining his own pockets with stimulus dollars is proper. Everything else is socialism." The AFL-CIO is likewise unhappy with Kelly's endorsement by organizations considered "extremist and racist" by civil rights groups.

Like labor, Barber is a strong supporter of Social Security and Medicare. But Kelly says that Social Security is a "giant Ponzi scheme" and that Medicare recipients are "on the public dole."

He's said health care is a "privilege" and so presumably should not be a government-guaranteed right, and claimed that "the highest quality and lowest cost can only be delivered without the government."

Kelly wants to reduce the Federal Drug Administration "as much as humanly possible." He's also advocated an end to government food safety inspections, leaving individuals to do their own inspections rather than rely on "the nanny state" to do it for them.

No wonder labor is mounting major campaigns against Kelly in Arizona and Walker in Wisconsin. Labor victories are needed there to help protect unions, their members and many others from attempts to weaken the rights, protections and other essential aid provided through government.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.