State Convention a Success in the Face of Pending Hurricane

The 2017 Convention of the South Carolina AFL-CIO was compressed and cut short by the threat of a hurricane evacuation but was still well-attended.  The annual meeting was held in the coastal city of Georgetown.

Pres. Erin McKee said that the event was a complete success in spite of the pending storm, that it takes a lot more than weather to keep labor leaders from coming together.

McKee was re-elected president for another two years. Charles Brave(ILA 1422) and Joe Shelly(USW 508) were re-elected as vice presidents.  Mike Godfrey(USW 1924) was re-elected Secretary-Treasurer. David Himmel(IBEW 1753) was selected as a trustee.

SC Rep. David Mack(D, Charleston/Dorchester) was presented with the organization’s Legislator of the Year Award.  Mack was unable to attend due to illness. McKee sent him a photo of the award.

Keynote speaker was activist, writer and media commentator Bill Fletcher.  Fletcher is author of “They’re Bankrupting Us & 20 Other Myths about Unions” and has appeared on programs like Bill Moyers.  After graduating from Harvard Fletcher went to work as a shipyard welder and has had a long career in labor, including leadership of several unions and serving as a senior staffer at the national AFL-CIO. He helped to desegregate the building trades in Boston. 

Fletcher talked about solidarity and race. He co-authored the book, “Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path to Social Justice.” Fletcher discussed external forces as well as internal problems in the movement which he says have slowed the US labor movement.  Fletcher says that unions need to recapture the militant, grassroots power that made them strong. 

 

Mark Dudzic with the Labor Campaign for Single Payer spoke concerning healthcare.  The United States is the only industrialized country left in the world that doesn’t have healthcare for all its citizens, and the cost of healthcare in this country is almost twice as much as in other countries. And the level of healthcare available to low-income residents may not be much better than that available in third-world countries. Dudzic says that the state of State Carolina created a “moral nightmare” when it refused to take Medicaid expansion money. 

Dudzic says a single payer plan makes sense, similar to Medicare, or at the very least we should have a system where Medicare is re-created to stretch back to age 55.  The state of New York’s general assembly overwhelmingly passed a single payer plan in 2015.

Dudzic also addressed the state convention in 2016.  He talked about the strike that was then underway at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Atlantic City owned by Donald Trump where 1200 workers were left without healthcare, and another at a hospital system in Minnisota where 5000 nurses had their healthcare reduced to only catastrophic plans.  “And the retired mine workers marched in Washington because the federal government welched on a promise made 50 years ago that those workers who went into those deep holes providing coal for America would have healthcare because the government agreed to hold the operators accountable,” Dudzic said. “These thousands of miners include some who were made very sick by years of mining and now they’re being denied healthcare.” 

Healthcare has got to be in the top five issues for any American family, he said.  “While the current US system gives people the right to buy insurance, they don’t necessarily have access to healthcare.  And people are finding that the policies are so expensive that if a catastrophic illness occurs, they still don’t have enough coverage to keep them out of bankruptcy. As long as healthcare is treated like a commodity and not a necessity for the public good, you’ll have businesses that make money by denying you healthcare.  That’s their profit, a toxic business model.  And the pharmaceutical industry is so powerful they can extort money from Americans and we see one scandal after another coming out of that industry.” 

“All of these structures stand between people and their healthcare,” Dudzic said.  “It creates inefficiency and our healthcare costs almost twice as much as any other industrialized country in the world, and we don’t get much better healthcare. A better system would make it so much better for so many people, and it would be better if states like South Carolina would expand Medicaid to take federal money for working-class poor people.  It’s a moral nightmare that this state, for political reasons, refused to take federal money to expand the Medicaid program.  This is tax money that belongs to the citizens of this state, and South Carolina’s share is now going to many other states that gladly take it,” Dudzic said.  “It’s just a crime and these politicians need to be held accountable for that.” 

Speakers this year again included SC Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter(D, Orangeburg) who McKee presented with the SC AFL-CIO Lifetime Friend of Labor Award.  Cobb-Hunter stressed the importance of educating the children of union families concerning the importance of unions, so that the message doesn’t get lost.  She said that the leader of the South Carolina Manufacturing Alliance, known for its strong anti-union position and legislation, had told her that his father had been a union member.  SC AFL-CIO President Emeritus Donna Dewitt added that, “It’s not what we try to teach young people, it’s what they see us do.”

Concerning growth needed by the labor movement, Rep. Cobb-Hunter also said that she knows that organizing efforts have to focus on people, not workplaces.

Concerning the shutdown of construction at the SCE&G nuclear site in Jenkinsville, she said that the problems could be traced back to state lawmakers and that it was as much their fault as it was that of SCANNA.  She said that Senator Mike Fanning(D, Rock Hill) was pushing SC legislators to respond appropriately to the situation.

Cobb-Hunter also said that the pay level of state employees is a major issue and that they need to be paid better.  “The South Carolina Legislature spent $300-thousand on a salary study, but we’ve done absolutely nothing with that study” she said.  “We are going to talk about reforming our pension and retirement, but we are not going to do that without the understanding that we don’t pay state employees enough. And remember that we have lost more than 10,000 state employees since 1995,” Cobb-Hunter said.  “What that means is we have fewer employees doing more work.”

 

SC AFL-CIO Political Director John Brisini told the union leaders about what he called common sense economics and gave a history of US politics leading up to the development of neo-liberalism, the growth of unrestrained corporate power which leads to the weakening of workers’ bargaining power. 

Brisini discussed the ALEC-generated bill S218, which passed the SC Statehouse this year despite SC AFL-CIO testimony against it and a campaign that warned local mayors that the legislation erodes home rule.  It stops local governments in South Carolina from unilaterally raising the minimum wage.  The bill reads “no political subdivision of this state may not establish, mandate or otherwise require an employee benefit.”  The legislation was a conservative response to the fact that some large US cities have instituted wage hikes as high as $15 an hour, which exceed the federal or state minimum wages.  It quickly became law this year.  The length of time that it took to pass, from the point when it was introduced by the Senate until it was signed by the governor, took less than three months.

Brisini also mentioned the so-called “Con-Con” bill.  Conservative organizations are targeting South Carolina and a handful of other states to push passage of legislation calling for a Constitutional Convention, to allow for the rewriting of the US Constitution.  Twenty-eight states have already passed legislation calling for the monumental action. Brisini says that only 34 states are needed to bring the “Con-Con” bill to a vote in Congress, and a favorable Congressional vote by 38 states would make it law. The implications of that are staggering. The only other time a US Constitutional Convention was held was in 1786.  George Washington led that meeting in the days before he became the first US President and it resulted in our current Constitution.

Brisini also recalled an incident in the SC Statehouse, where Rep. Chris Murphy  ran the clock out on Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter’s Equal Pay Bill, legislation which had been pushed by the SC AFL-CIO.  Labor leaders from around the state were present at that meeting and vote, which virtually killed the bill for the year.  After the meeting they met and wrote out personal messages on postcards which were sent to the wives of all of the sub-committee members, including Murphy.  Brisini said that the bill would have likely have passed out of sub-committee and been put on the House agenda, if not for the actions of one man.  “I ask you all to contact Rep. Murphy, and ask him to put HR3599 back on the sub-committee agenda, so we can pick up where we left off.”

 

Other speakers included Michael Morrill, leader of a new organization called Progress South Carolina, and political activist Annabelle Robertson, leader of the group SC Indivisible, one of many Indivisible groups across the US and one of several in South Carolina. Morrill, a former Baptist minister, said that their goal is to build a stronger progressive movement in the state using innovative organizing tactics.  Concerning the 2016 elections, Robertson said, “The Republicans had record turnout, while Democrats had one of the lowest primary turnouts in 20 years...The DNC attributed that to -bad weather-. But I tell you, if you have a problem with the people in our state government, and I certainly hope you do, you need to crawl over broken glass to vote them out in 2018.”

 

And UFCW 1800 President Timothy Jones talked about the closing of the historic tire fiber plant in Winnsboro where he had worked for many years. The Dura-Fiber plant employed approximately 200 workers and was shutting its doors just days after the convention.  Jones described how the working conditions at the company had gone downhill since it was bought out years ago.

Jones’ story was particularly sad. He said that after he lost his job that at least he knew that his family could count on his wife’s job until he found something new.  But then his wife lost her own position with the V.C. Summer Nuclear plant shortly after that. The group took up an offering in Jones’ honor. 

The company will also close two other plants in North Carolina putting 600 more people out of work, all to reduce production costs. Dura-Fiber is headquartered in Charlotte and has facilities in France, Germany and Mexico, all of which are currently unaffected by the cutbacks.