Tina Smith: Fighting for working families in the U.S. Senate

Sen. Tina Smith talked with Steve Frisque, a steward with Local 722 and former local president, on the General Motors picket line in Hudson.

Tina Smith isn’t on the ballot this November, but for Minnesota’s junior U.S. senator, the reprieve from campaigning will be brief. The seat Smith won in 2018 goes back on the ballot in November 2020, and the race already has attracted a well-funded opponent in former 2nd District Rep. Jason Lewis.

For working families, the contrast couldn’t be sharper.

While Lewis’ signature achievement was a tax break that overwhelmingly benefited corporations and the wealthy, Smith has a track record of putting working people first, one that dates back to her work in Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration, when she worked closely with Minnesota’s unions.

Smith has maintained those ties in the Senate, where she’s emerged as a leading voice on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, advancing issues like equal pay and pension reform. She offered insight into that work last month in an interview with The Union Advocate.

UA: Your committee recently held the new labor secretary’s confirmation hearings. What did you learn?

TS: I voted against Gene Scalia for labor secretary because I felt that a person who dedicated his life to fighting for management and against labor is not the kind of leadership we need at the Department of Labor. The DOL was established as an agency that was solidly fighting for the needs of workers, whether it’s fair working conditions, safe working conditions, fair wages, a secure retirement – that’s the purpose of the DOL. To have somebody be nominated who has consistently fought on the other side of all those issues seemed to be completely wrong.

But now he’s in this role, and I will do everything I can to make sure he fulfills the promise of the DOL.

UA: You’ve been active in the fight to protect pensions since before you were appointed to the Senate. Where does that work stand, and what barriers are you running into?

TS: I’m proud to be a co-sponsor of the Butch Lewis Act, which is a practical and common-sense way to make sure people who did everything right, who paid into their pensions, who sacrificed current earnings for their retirement security aren’t penalized.

I raised this (issue) with Mr. Scalia when he came to my office for an interview, and I raised it again during the confirmation hearing. And I’m going to continue to raise it. This is an issue that is really important to the Central States Pension Plan, with upwards of 22,000 Minnesotans enrolled in it.

I tell my Republican colleagues this is an issue that’s not only affecting workers, but also affecting businesses. Many businesses also did everything right and paid into these pensions that now are facing a lot of insecurity… This is not an example of mismanagement or somebody doing something wrong. It is through no fault of anybody that these pension plans are struggling, and it’s going to be to the benefit of all of us if we step in and make sure they get stabilized.

What happens with Butch Lewis is really an open question after the work we did last year to try to come up with a compromise plan. We weren’t able to persuade the Republicans to come up with something, but we’re continuing to try to find a way. Time is of the essence.

UA: So much of the focus in Washington is on the president, whether it’s his Tweets or his scandals. Is there room for action on issues of importance to working families – like an infrastructure jobs bill – where there might be common ground?

TS: I think that the House of Representatives has demonstrated they can move forward positive legislation to improve people’s lives. They passed the Butch Lewis Act. The problem we have right now is that the U.S. Senate is the place where good ideas go to die. Mitch McConnell moves forward nominations like Gene Scalia for the DOL, but dozens of bills that would help working families sit at the doorstep of the U.S. Senate and he refuses to take them up. He doesn’t have do that, but that’s what he chooses to do. He’s turned the U.S. Senate into a personnel agency for the White House, and it’s a big problem.

UA: Minneapolis recently hosted a convention with 2,500 tradeswomen from across the country and Canada. What can Congress do to get more women into high-paying jobs like these?

TS: I had a chance to go and hang out with some of those amazing tradeswomen, and drink a beer made by a Minnesota women-owned brewery. I played hammerschlagen and did not do well, but it was great just to be with these powerful, energetic tradeswomen who are really breaking barriers every day in the building trades, fighting for their opportunity to fill those jobs. It was wonderful that the Twin Cities was able to host that group.

I know that many of my brothers and sisters in the building trades are focused on expanding opportunities for women. We need to especially support union apprenticeship programs in the building trades and other areas, and make sure that there’s lots of room for women. And I think we need to do the work in high schools and even middle schools so that young women are exposed to career opportunities, so they can find the good-paying jobs that are more than jobs, they are careers.

The other thing, since you mentioned infrastructure, I remember the work I did when I was lieutenant governor to get the new Vikings stadium built, and the large number of women trades members who participated on that work site. That’s just one example of the kind of big infrastructure projects we ought to be funding and supporting because they make our country more competitive, and they create such great jobs.

UA: You’ve worked closely with organized labor going back to your time in the Dayton administration, when we watched the tide turn for unions in Wisconsin. That pendulum has swung back. Unions have never been as popular as they are now. Why do you think that is, and what can federal lawmakers do to seize that momentum and help more people win a voice on the job?

TS: Wherever I go, when I’m talking to people, I remind them of the contributions organized labor has made. Whether you’re a union member or not, if you enjoy a weekend off, thank a labor union. If you enjoy overtime or a safe pension, thank a labor union. If you work in a safe job with good working conditions, thank a labor union – and remember the 150 who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

One of the challenges we have in this country is there has been a concerted, coordinated effort to weaken organized labor. You see it in so-called right to work laws. You see it in the challenges and barriers that have been thrown up to stop people who want to come together and organize for better wages and working conditions. And, I think, as people become more aware of those challenges, we become better able to fight back.

Last, I’ll say the blatant inequity in CEO salaries, compared to the wages regular workers are making, is becoming more and more apparent. We were talking about this … while I was walking the picket line with UAW workers. The CEO of General Motors took home $22 million in total compensation last year, yet UAW workers are fighting to get rid of this two-tiered wage system, which has people working side by side on the line and the non-legacy or temporary worker is making a fraction of what the long-term worker makes? That’s just wrong. And I think people are ready to rise to the occasion and fight back.

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