Labor unions and conservation groups team up in bid to influence farm policy

The AFL-CIO and other major labor unions for the first time are aiming to influence farm policy by partnering with conservation groups that seek greater funding for programs benefiting U.S. hunters and fishers.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said his organization became involved after learning from an informal poll that 70 percent of the membership of 20 unions hunt and fish, and that those members were worried about access to land and a lack of habitat.

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Increasing conservation funding “is a very high priority for us,” said Trumka, who described himself as an active outdoorsman. He described the 2007 farm bill as “absolutely” the No. 1 conservation issue for the AFL-CIO.

The unions are just one of several new players in the debate over farm policy, which could complicate efforts by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and others to craft a farm bill.

“I think there is certainly a change in the air that I never experienced before and people want to move onto reform,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), a leading proponent for reform who opposed the 2002 farm bill.

The farm bill debate likely will intensify over the next few weeks, as Peterson is expected by lobbyists to announce today that his subcommittees will begin writing the 2007 farm bill this week. Peterson has said he hopes to complete a House bill before the August recess.

Another new player is Oxfam America, which recently hired Clinton administration Agriculture Undersecretary Jim Lyons as its vice president and is making the farm bill its U.S. agency priority for the year. It is also bringing Oscar-nominated actor Djimon Hounsou (“Blood Diamond”) to Washington today for a lobbying session with members of Congress.

Oxfam “sends shudders down the spine of the agriculture community,” said one farm lobbyist, who noted the group’s influence in raising attention to U.S. farm subsidies.

In particular, it has highlighted the argument that U.S. cotton subsidies hurt poor African farmers. That will likely be the message today from Hounsou, a native of Benin, one of four African countries pressuring the Bush administration to
eliminate cotton subsidies.

The bill is creating some strange bedfellows. Budget watchdogs, environmental groups and one of Washington’s largest trade associations, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, have put their weight behind legislation that would change drastically the farm-subsidy system and in turn fund more conservation and nutrition programs across the country.

“What we have noticed is the way to get attention and get something done in Congress is to bring together these loose, disparate groups into a coalition,” said Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Unions signaled their heavy involvement in the debate for the first time in a May 15 letter to Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. In the letter, the AFL-CIO and 16 other unions endorsed recommendations from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP).

That group calls on Congress not to allow any native prairie to be converted to cropland that could be eligible for farm payments. It also wants programs conserving wetlands and grasslands to be increased, and recommends tripling funding for the wildlife habitat incentives program.

Unions traditionally have not engaged directly in the formation of farm bills, but are speaking out now because they “have a keen interest in advocating for our members’ interests not only in the workplace but also in the fields, forests and waters so many of them spend their hard-earned time in,” the letter said.

Other unions signing the letter include the United Steelworkers of America, the International Association of Fire Fighters and the United Mine Workers of America.

Unions have already contributed $1.2 million to make the launch of the partnership of the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance successful, according to Tim Zink, director of communications for TRCP. He said union lobbyists have been handing out TRCP proposals in their meetings with members, and that the TRCP is benefiting from the union’s experience in lobbying.

Zink also said that union membership is high in the upper Midwest, which is also a bedrock of the farm community.
TRCP’s view is that the partnership with unions “has to help” its efforts on conservation funding.

Neither the TRCP nor the unions are calling for Congress to cut farm payments as a way of increasing conservation funding, but this would appear to set up some potential battles down the line since the budgetary baseline for agriculture spending is expected to be reduced. Zink said TRCP doesn’t care where the money comes from as long as it is provided for conservation.