May 18, 2007 Volume 108 Number 10

Washington Congressman Brian Baird talks about union issues

VANCOUVER — Washington Congressman Brian Baird wants to set the record straight.

He supports unions. He supports a workers’ right to form a union without being harassed by their bosses. He supports project labor agreements, state and federal prevailing wage laws, and buying American-made goods.

The national AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education (COPE) ranks Baird among the top members in the U.S. House of Representatives, with a lifetime COPE voting record of 89 percent on issues it deems important to working men and women. The Change to Win Labor Federation doesn’t track voting records, but its affiliates have always endorsed the five-term Democrat from Vancouver.

“There’s a lot we agree on — definitely more than we disagree on,” Baird told the Northwest Labor Press in an hour-long interview May 4 arranged by the congressman.

Baird has been getting a lot of heat from organized labor — especially building trades unions. It started late more than a year ago when he let go his labor liaison, longtime Teamster Harry Glaus. Most recently it’s over positions he has taken on proposed construction projects and global trade. It reached a breaking point a month ago when a union member chastised him for supporting fast-track trade negotiating authority, the Central America Free Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“I didn’t support any of those. I wasn’t even there (in Congress) when NAFTA passed,” he said.

It’s true. Baird voted against fast- track trade authority, and against free-trade agreements with Central America and Chile. He did support labor-opposed trade deals with Oman, Bahrain, Morocco, Australia and Singapore, and he voted for permanent normal trade relations with China and Vietnam.

Fast track (now called trade promotion authority) slipped through Congress in the middle of the night in 2002 by only two votes. Under fast track, the president is authorized to negotiate trade agreements with foreign countries without consulting lawmakers. After the terms of the deal are negotiated it is presented to Congress, which is only permitted a yes or no vote on the agreement within 90 days of its submission.

Fast-track trade promotion authority is set to expire in June and it faces renewal by Congress. Baird told the Labor Press that he probably will vote against it.

He says he has a “fundamental constitutional concern” about fast-track trade promotion authority. He cited Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution that states, “Congress shall have power to regulate commerce with foreign nations...” Baird says fast-track authority takes that responsibility out of Congress’ hands.

He reminded the Labor Press of his early support for the Employee Free Choice Act. “This might be the most significant bill out there (for labor),” he said. EFCA, a bill designed to level the playing field between workers and employers in union organizing and collective bargaining, passed the House earlier this year 241 to 185.

A member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Baird led the way in getting a bill introduced to help strengthen enforcement of the Buy America Act. The federal law stipulates that American-made steel and iron be used on federal transportation bridge projects unless its use would increase the cost of the overall project by 25 percent.

The Bush Administration has interpreted the law in a “convoluted way,” Baird said, that encourages the Federal Highway Administration to break up projects into smaller “sub-contracts” and then apply the 25 percent rule to each sub-contract.

“Congress funds a project from start to finish. That’s the project,” Baird said. “It’s just common sense that U.S. tax dollars should be spent on U.S. goods used in U.S. infrastructure projects.”

He said the decline of the U.S. steel industry also has important national security implications.

“What would happen to our infrastructure in the event of a deadly earthquake?” he asked. “Rebuilding efforts would be made that much more difficult if there were no domestic steel industry to rely on.”

Baird said he aggressively defended the Davis-Bacon Act (the federal prevailing wage law) and union workers when Republicans tried to strip it from the Water Resource Development Act. The Water Resource bill authorizes the secretary of the Army to construct various projects for improvements to rivers and harbors.

Baird said he also stood up to the Bush Administration when it tried to strip funding for Perkins Grant funds earmarked for vocational education training at high schools and community colleges. “These funds are a great help for blue-collar workers,” he said.

The House recently passed a bill that Baird introduced that will bolster math and science education by bringing academia and industry together. “This isn’t just for educating kids for college,” Baird said. “There is language in the bill that will help with vocational and technical education that will increase job opportunities.”

Job opportunities was the issue with building trades unions after Baird announced his opposition to a proposed liquid natural gas(LNG) terminal at Bradwood Landing near Astoria, Oregon.

Baird says the criticism is unwarranted because no one from labor ever contacted him to state their interest or position in the project. He said he was aware that construction unions supported the terminal after seeing John Mohlis, executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council, testify on behalf of the Bradwood terminal at a public forum in Cathlamet, Wash.

Union officials say Baird didn’t give them an opportunity to make their case before announcing his opposition.

Baird told the Labor Press he isn’t opposed to liquid natural gas terminals in general, but he’s unlikely to support any terminals proposed along the Columbia River. In addition to Bradwood Landing, there are three other LNG terminals proposed for the lower Columbia River and another in Coos Bay.

“Our nation needs liquid natural gas and the terminals need to be built and operated by union labor,” Baird said. “But there are other issues to consider.” He said river safety, private property rights, and impacts on shipping lanes and sports fishing due to security measurers are important issues that need to be addressed.

Temporary construction jobs are important, he said. But the long-term impact on people’s lives carries more weight.

On the issue of health care reform, Baird is a recent co-sponsor of the Healthy Americans Act, a bill introduced by Oregon Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden. The bill — supported by the Service Employees International Union and several corporations — would maintain the current health care system, but would require employers to pay for a portion of their employees’ premiums.

In a press release, Wyden and Baird said the reform package is centered on a market-based health care system, universal coverage with individual responsibility, financial assistance for low-income individuals; healthier behavior and incentives; and equal tax treatment.

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.