Pocan, labor researchers advocate for union jobs at panel discussion in Janesville

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Jim Dayton
Thursday, April 20, 2017

JANESVILLE—Left-leaning labor researchers advocated for less corporate power and more reinvestment in middle-class jobs Thursday at a panel discussion organized by Democratic Congressman Mark Pocan.

The event at Blackhawk Technical College explored the future of middle-class jobs and wages in an increasingly global economy.

David Weil, a Boston University professor and former Department of Labor administrator, said ongoing economic changes have created a “fissured workplace” and made it harder for employees to organize.

Companies such as General Motors used to hire all of their employees, from janitors to groundskeepers. Now, instead of being hired in-house, those jobs are contracted out to temporary agencies that use low wages to make their services more attractive, Weil said.

Nell Abernathy, vice president of research and policy at the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think-tank, said economic shifts are not completely a byproduct of globalization.

They also stem from conscious policy decisions from lawmakers, starting with the theory of trickle-down economics in the 1970s and 1980s, she said.

After the presentations, Pocan and two other Democratic congressmen, Mark DeSaulnier from California and Donald Norcross from New Jersey, fielded questions from an audience of about 40 people.

Some wanted to know why the Democratic Party had lost touch with middle-class workers, long a strong base of the party.

Pocan said the party needs to do a better job of talking about "kitchen table" issues. It needs to get workers to vote for their best interests, which mostly align with the Democrats, he said.

DeSaulnier and Norcross echoed Pocan, saying the party has gotten disconnected from its base. It's up to the party to regain that trust, they said.

But audience members showed a clear allegiance to the Democratic Party.

They booed President Donald Trump at the mention of his name and criticized Rep. Paul Ryan for not being visible in Rock County recently. A handful of people wore union apparel.

Gary Breakfield, a Roscoe, Illinois, resident who works at Fairbanks Morse Engine in Beloit, attended the event because he wanted to know how to educate young workers and get them more involved in unions.

Many young workers do not understand the benefits of union membership. Belonging to a union means health care, good wages and workplace safety, Breakfield said.

Sporting a United Steelworkers Local 1533 T-shirt, Breakfield said afterward that he was optimistic about the future of unions.

He believes pro-worker policies are on the horizon after hearing from the congressmen.

In an interview, Pocan said that as the economy changes, preserving strong collective bargaining rights will be essential.

“When people can have a say in their workplace, they usually get paid better and have better benefits,” he said. “We're moving away from that trend, and that's why we want to get hold of it before it gets too far.”

The Rock County economy is still recovering from GM's shutdown nearly 10 years ago. For it to fully recover, it needs to offer people sustainable careers with good benefits, not just “filler” positions, Pocan said.

“If your kids are making less than the parents did decades ago, there's a problem,” Pocan said. “We got to make sure we have good, family-supporting wages and jobs here in the community so people aren't having two or three jobs without benefits and barely getting by.”

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