Unions Increasingly Locked Out Of Louisiana Political Influence

On Friday, a group of some two dozen union members descended on the Baton Rouge offices of Rep. Bill Cassidy in an attempt to protest his stance on the Ryan plan for Medicare. The issue isn’t one of particular union concern, though clearly the demonstrators were scared up by labor organizers.

But the outcome of their appearance served as an excellent manifestation of how things are going for the union movement in Louisiana these days…

Nobody answered the door at Cassidy’s office and the group of about 25 headed to the parking lot with orange dayglo signs that read “Medicare is not welfare.”

Notwithstanding the Baton Rouge Advocate’s peculiar interest in the demonstration’s non-story, the article about which contained quotes from a sizable fraction of the union members in attendance (including the Advocate’s favorite union pipefitter/Letters To The Editor contributor Michael Day), Cassidy isn’t the only politician in Louisiana uninterested in organized labor’s advocacy.

Last week a bill by Sen. Danny Martiny (R-Kenner) to ban union-friendly Project Labor Agreements in Louisiana taxpayer-funded construction projects sailed through the Louisiana Senate on a 27-4 count. SB 76 was the subject of some rather heated discussion on the Senate floor when it came time to assign it to a committee. Martiny had to fight to get the bill into the Labor committee, which has a friendlier composition than the Transportation Committee in which it was originally placed by Senate President Joel Chaisson. And when he won that fight, veteran Senator Joe McPherson (D-Woodworth) howled about rich contractors and bad memories.

The Democrat also made reference to “pencils stuck in the ceiling from the last time the contractors did something like this,” which was an allusion to the fight to pass the right-to-work statute in 1976 where 15,000 union members descended on the Capitol and a bomb was set off in the chamber. McPherson also took a shot at what he insinuated [was] Martiny’s lack of respect for the rules, a statement interpreted by some observers as an attack on the latter’s prospective candidacy for Chaisson’s job when [the Senate president] and McPherson will both be term-limited out of the body next year.

“I’m glad I won’t be here,” he said.

McPherson missed the final Senate vote on SB 76 Thursday, as did seven of his colleagues – including Republicans Mike Michot (R-Lafayette), Gerald Long (R-Winnfield) and Buddy Shaw (R-Shreveport). The four votes against were all black Democrats – Yvonne Dorsey (D-Baton Rouge), Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans), Edwin Murray (D-New Orleans) and Cynthia Willard-Lewis (D-New Orleans). But even among the Senate’s black caucus the vote wasn’t unanimous, as J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans) and Elbert Guillory (D-Opelousas) voted for the bill while Sharon Weston-Broome (D-Baton Rouge) and Lydia Jackson (D-Shreveport) didn’t cast a vote.

And several fairly reliable Democrats voted for the bill, including Francis Thompson (D-Delhi), Butch Gautreaux (D-Morgan City) and – surprisingly enough – Ben Nevers, who is actually a union contractor back home in Bogalusa.

That’s a far cry from 15,000 union members storming the Capitol, a bomb going off and 45 years of rough memories. The SB 76 vote shows even Democrats at the Capitol aren’t afraid of the unions anymore.

Another piece of legislation barring PLA’s also passed through a notable legislative body last week, this one in the U.S. House of Representatives. Namely, an amendment by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) kiboshing the use of PLA’s was successfully added to the 2012 Military Construction-Veterans Affairs appropriations bill, which will go to the House floor in early June.

Among the votes in favor was one from Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-Louisiana), who voted “no” on an amendment banning PLA’s in all federal contracts back in February – and caught hell for it from the state’s construction industry. Alexander’s reversal on the PLA issue marks a return to political sanity – when he voted against a project-labor agreement ban in February, he was siding with unions who represent a mere 2.8 percent of the state’s private-sector workforce.

It’s a good bet that the fraction of that 2.8 percent who vote Republican is less than half. But these days, when if you’re a Union Democrat you might be able to get the Baton Rouge paper to follow you and a few of your union friends to a demonstration at a Congressman’s office shuttered for the Memorial Day holidays but that’s the extent of your impact, it seems the days of setting bombs or even influencing Democrat politicians on legislation are over in Louisiana.

That so puny a display from the state’s unions should come in an election year indicates how small a factor the movement is in the state’s politics these days.

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