Axed from panel name, labor on high alert

The GOP’s decision to drop “labor” from the name of a House committee is being interpreted by some union officials as the curtain-raiser to their efforts to pressure the Obama administration on workplace laws and regulations. 

Several labor leaders contacted by The Hill said changing the name of the House Education and Labor Committee to the House Education and the Workforce Committee shows that a new boss is in town, and one not friendly to unions.

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“During the [Newt] Gingrich Congress, they used the committee to gut [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration], to weaken overtime laws and undermine the rights of the workers who want to bargain for a better standard of living,” Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s director of government affairs, told The Hill. 

“It really does mean something,” he said of the name change. “More than the rhetoric, they have a different agenda.”

Other top figures in the labor movement agreed. 

“We basically think this name change is symbolic of the new majority’s hostility toward the rights of everyday working Americans,” said Chuck Loveless, director of legislation at the American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). 

Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the union officials’ claim that the name change reflected hostility toward workers is “bizarre,” since union members are part of the workforce.

She said Republicans changed the panel’s name to reflect its “broad jurisdiction over polices that affect American students, workers and retirees.”

“The committee oversees a wide range of policies, programs, agencies and offices that affect the American workforce as a whole, and this name reflects that broad responsibility and inclusiveness,” Marrero said.

Relations between labor and House Republicans will likely be contentious this Congress. 

AFSCME, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other unions spent tens of millions of dollars in the last election cycle trying to prevent the GOP takeover of the House. And during the last Congress, Republicans often opposed many of labor’s priorities, including the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and union-friendly nominees to the National Labor Relations Board. 

Established in 1867, the House Education and Labor Committee split into two in 1883, with one panel established for education and the other for labor. By 1947, the two panels rejoined under the original name.

Republicans changed the panel’s title to the Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities after taking the House in 1994, and later switched it to the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Democrats changed the committee’s name back to Education and Labor when they came to power after the 2006 elections. 

Republicans wasted no time making the new name official on Wednesday. By lunchtime, they had already updated the committee’s website to reflect the new title.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) will be the committee’s new chairman, replacing Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a longtime labor favorite who sponsored EFCA last Congress and was a champion of healthcare reform. Kline’s panel, in contrast, will be part of the GOP effort to repeal the healthcare law. 

“The reality is that it is going to be horrific for labor,” one union official said about the changeover at the committee. 

Labor officials said they expect the committee to increase oversight of the Obama administration’s labor regulations. Loveless of AFSCME said the committee could take a hard look at decisions reached by the National Labor Relations Board, many of which have been cheered by unions and opposed by business groups. 

“We are very concerned here at AFSCME that the committee is going to pressure the administration to weaken enforcement of labor laws and regulations, whether it’s workplace safety, wage and hour requirements or mine safety,” Loveless said. 

Others see a big debate coming on public pensions.  

“I think they are going to use the tough economic times to go after public-sector unions, especially with the pension system,” said the union official, pointing to a bill sponsored by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that would force state and local pension programs to report their liabilities and ban the use of federal funds to bail them out. 

Other popular laws among unions — such as the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires federal contractors to pay prevailing wages to workers on public works projects — could also become a focus of the committee. 

“We are always worried about Davis-Bacon,” said Bevin Albertani, legislative and political director for the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). “There is always going to be a contingent in Congress who don’t feel prevailing wage laws are that important.”

Union officials might also find themselves under congressional scrutiny. In the 1990s, then-Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) led an Oversight and Investigations subcommittee that held hearings on the 1996 elections of Teamsters union officers. 

During the 18-month investigation, several labor leaders were called before the subcommittee. The subcommittee ended up producing a roughly 2,000-page report dissecting internal union dealings. 

Marrero said there were no plans to create a similar subcommittee this Congress. 

“We expect the full committee and all of its subcommittees will be engaged in oversight,” Marrero said.

Some unions want to put last year’s elections behind them and have already begun to reach out to members of committee. National Education Association (NEA) President Dennis Van Roekel called Kline after the election to discuss where they could work together in the coming Congress, according to NEA officials and congressional aides.

Kim Anderson, NEA’s director of government relations, said her union is working to set up meetings between its officials and Republican leaders. She said it was “premature” to predict how the new GOP-controlled committee will operate. 

“The Republican agenda put out right before the election didn’t mention education at all,” Anderson said. “It says that there is a blank slate there, and we don’t want to assume anything. We see a blank slate as an opportunity.”

Others are asking their local union members to meet with new lawmakers in their congressional districts to find common ground. Albertani of LIUNA said her union wants “to work in a bipartisan fashion. We will work with anyone to create jobs.

“That connection at home between lawmakers and local union members is really the bridge that will allow us to work with them in D.C. It is critical,” Albertani said.


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