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Education and Labor Committee approves pension reform bill

  • June 11, 2019

The House Education and Labor Committee today advanced legislation to shore up failing multiemployer pension plans.

The committee approved, 28-18, the Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act H.R. 397 (116), which resembles strongly a 2017 bill introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D.-Ohio). Like that bill, the new one, sponsored by Rep. Richard Neal (D._Mass.), would create a Treasury agency to issue bond-backed loans to faltering multiemployer plans. It’s an expensive proposition, perceived by many as a bailout, that gained little support from Republicans last Congress and stands little chance in the Senate.

Multiemployer pensions are private pension plans funded by multiple employers and negotiated by labor unions.

The Brown bill was among those considered last year by a joint House-Senate pension “supercommittee” that Brown co-chaired with retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah). The committee was tasked with addressing the looming insolvency of multiemployer plans like the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund and the United Mine Workers’ Pensions & Retiree Health Care plan. But the supercommittee failed to reach an agreement before its Nov. 30 deadline.

The new bill has support from labor leaders, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard.

Republicans criticize passage of the bill

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), Republican Leader of the Committee on Education and Labor, released the following statement after Committee Chairman Bobby Scott invoked the nuclear option to shut down any debate or amendments to H.R. 397, the Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act:

“This is an outrageous offense. This Committee has held one hearing on the issue, neglecting to fully examine such a drastic bill in a legislative hearing. We were stunned to hear on Friday that the Committee would be marking up a bill that hasn’t received full consideration of this panel.

“It is simply irresponsible to bring a bill addressing such a complex and far-reaching issue before the Committee for markup with only days notice. The Chairman complained about a delay in receiving amendments from Committee Republicans when no such notice is required by House Rules. However, Republicans extended the courtesy of two hours’ advance notice before they would have been considered. How can he reasonably expect Committee Republicans to respond to a 38-page ANS with 11 amendments outside of this Committee’s jurisdiction in such a timeframe?

“This action is virtually unprecedented in this Committee and in the House of Representatives. Democrats have stated that they wanted to work together in a bipartisan fashion. Today’s actions, stopping Republicans from offering amendments, is the ultimate partisan retaliation. How are we supposed to work together when half of the room is barred from participating?

“I find it frankly embarrassing that the Committee that was able to negotiate bipartisan multiemployer pension legislation in the not so distant past has succumbed to such tactics. In the end, these politically-motivated actions only delay meaningful help for the workers and retirees that are in desperate need of a solution from this body. Today, those workers were reduced to mere pawns in Speaker Pelosi’s vindictive hold on the House of Representatives.” 

NIFA employees vote to unionize as relocation looms

  • June 11, 2019

Employees of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture voted today to unionize in the face of the Agriculture Department’s plan to relocate the research-focused agency out of Washington.

The 137-2 vote in favor of forming a union was prompted by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s proposal to move NIFA and the Economic Research Service to a yet-to-be-announced location. The plan has led to unease and a drop in morale among employees of both agencies, current and former employees have told POLITICO. ERS employees voted to unionize last month.

NIFA handles USDA grants for agricultural research and acts as a liaison between land-grant universities and the federal government, coordinating regional research projects.

Perdue has said ERS and NIFA would benefit from being placed closer to farming communities. He’s also cited anticipated cost-savings and an improved ability to recruit and retain staff as justifications for the planned move.

But the proposal has sparked a backlash among lawmakers — mostly Democrats — and current and former ERS and NIFA employees. At ERS, current and former employees believe the move is an effort to silence scientists who produce research contrary to the Trump administration’s agenda. High-level NIFA employees are also upset over plans that will require them to compete for a limited number of positions that won’t require relocation.

USDA is running behind its previously announced schedule for unveiling a new home for the agencies. Perdue had aimed to make a decision by the end of May, but last week he told a news outlet in North Carolina it could be “days or weeks” before an announcement is made.

The finalists to host ERS and NIFA are the research triangle region in North Carolina, multiple locations in Indiana and the greater Kansas City area.

Elizabeth Warren’s election campaign staff unionizes

  • June 5, 2019

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign workers have opted to join a union, according to an official involved in the effort.

The campaign workers will be represented by the Manchester, N.H.-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2320. The Warren campaign didn’t object to the idea of a union when IBEW broached the subject this week, promptly providing a list of workers who it thought should be included in the bargaining unit.

“They were pretty open to the idea,” Steven Soule, the IBEW Local 2320 business manager, told POLITICO in an interview.

Warren’s staff is the fourth presidential campaign to unionize, after those of Senator Bernie Sanders(I-Vt.), former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, and Representative Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).

All four campaigns allowed their campaign staffs to organize through the informal collection of authorization forms, a process known as “card check” that is less cumbersome than a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, which managers are permitted under labor law to require.

Sanders’ staff last month ratified a collective bargaining agreement that doubles the amount of time off from 10 to 20 days a year, provides mandatory breaks, and caps managers’ pay in a way that is proportional to the salaries of unionized workers.

Unionizing presidential campaigns is a new phenomenon until now limited to a few state and local campaigns. The 2018 midterms saw more than 20 Democratic campaigns and multiple state parties unionize under the Campaign Workers Guild and other established unions like United Food and Commercial Workers.