March 6, 2009 Volume 110 Number 5

Q&A with Jeff Merkley

What a difference an election makes. Union ally Jeff Merkley — who as speaker of the Oregon House led passage of a law giving public employees an easier way to unionize — is now a U.S. senator. In contrast to his predecessor Gordon Smith, who rarely granted an audience with labor in 12 years, Merkley was already meeting with worker representatives on his first trip home.

Feb. 18, Merkley visited the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 48 hall in Portland to meet with building trades union leaders and their contractor association counterparts and explain the just-passed stimulus package. The package is likely to put thousands of union members back to work this year and next at prevailing wage federal construction and remodeling jobs.

Later in the day, he sat down to answer questions from the Northwest Labor Press. 

Is the stimulus going to be enough to turn around the economy?

I don’t think there’s a magic wand here. We’re in for a very difficult several years. Just to give perspective on this, the estimated drop in consumer demand for 2009 is a trillion dollars. The stimulus, assuming half is spent in 2009, would be less than $400 billion. So you aren’t filling the entire hole. Furthermore, we still have a tremendous lack of lending, and a huge problem with the bursting housing bubble and devaluation of housing. Those things contribute to a vicious vortex pulling the economy down. None of those are going to be resolved easily.

During the debate on the stimulus package, there was a big fight about the Buy American provision, which requires that steel and other components purchased in projects funded by the stimulus package be made in the United States. It ultimately passed. What are you thoughts on it?

I supported it. We’re using American tax dollars, and we expect it to be spent to stimulate the American economy, not to be spent overseas.

Will it run afoul of a World Trade Organization rule on government procurement that the United States is a party to?

I’ll leave that to the lawyers to figure out.

Is there anything in the stimulus bill you feel personally responsible for, something you helped get into it?

A piece Senator (Ron) Wyden and I were working on behind the scenes, mainly by staff-to-staff contacts and urging of the Conference Committee, was an increase in education funding for the states. The state stabilization fund was cut on the Senate side, and then increased by $14 billion when it went to Conference Committee. That’s very important to states like Oregon that have a huge hole in their budget.

During your campaign you were dogged by opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act, the union-supported bill that would help workers unionize and get a first contract. Have you heard from them since the election?

I’ve certainly heard from groups that oppose the Employee Free Choice Act. But the fact is I was very clear where I stood, and the citizens of Oregon supported me. I made the case that we need to make a reasonably fair path for citizens to organize. Right now we have a broken system, and we need to fix it.

How much of a priority is it for you?

It’s extremely important to workers in the United States for fairness.

Do you have a short list of things you’d like to help accomplish this year?

Number one is to end the war in Iraq. Second is universal health care. A third is working very hard on global climate change. It is an economic imperative. We need to put the United States in the lead of developing and selling technology to the world. And it’s a moral imperative, since failure to act will have devastating consequences on our ecosystems and on human civilization.

To get to universal health care, what approach do you favor?

We are the only developed society that does not have health care as part of our social contract with our citizens. We have the most expensive health care system but also the one that provides the least coverage of any developed democracy. There are number of blueprints that have been put forward — Obama’s, Baucus’, Wyden’s. I have signed on as a co-sponsor to Wyden’s blueprint. [Massachusetts Senator Ted] Kennedy is going to work closely with the White House and pull ideas from many different strategies. I am on the Health Committee so I’m looking forward to being immersed in that conversation. I have a lot to learn in that area. But I don’t want us to miss this opportunity because we’re arguing over the exact form. I want to make sure we seize this opportunity to provide health care to Americans.

You’ve been on the job just over a month. What was the most surprising thing to you about how the Senate works?

The amendment process. I knew bills were amended on floor. What I didn’t realize is that those amendments could be put forward in short order with no analysis of their impact. So senators are really voting blind on issues of very significant policy.

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