Smith earned labor endorsement in Senate race with hard work

Terry Nelson (L), Painters and Allied Trades District Council 82’s business manager, leads Sen. Tina Smith and Susan Kent, the Minnesota Senate’s minority leader, on a tour of the union’s apprenticeship center in Little Canada.

During Tina Smith’s first week as a U.S. senator, after Gov. Mark Dayton appointed her to the seat in December 2017, Smith traveled to Duluth, where she met with workers and retirees fighting to save their pension fund.

The Central States Pension Fund, with some 400,000 participants, had recently announced it would run out of money in the next 10 years, putting at risk the earned benefits of 273,000 retirees, mostly former Teamsters.

Smith remembers meeting one union member at the event who said she didn’t think she could afford to retire without her pension. “I don’t have a Plan B,” she told Smith. “That’s my only plan for making sure I can stay in my house, that I can pay my bills.”

Smith was officially sworn into office a month later. Since then she has made pension reform one of her top priorities, signing on as a supporter of the union-backed Butch Lewis Act. And from her seat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Smith has raised awareness of the looming crisis Central States and other funds face without federal action.

But the encounter in Duluth stuck with Smith, she said, both as an example of the “deep economic inequity” plaguing our country and as a reminder of what the junior senator from Minnesota tries to prioritize in Washington, D.C.

“It was so motivating to me,” Smith said. “Here are people who did everything they were supposed to do. They paid into the pension, and their employers did, too. And yet there were members of Congress … trying to shirk the responsibility we have to protect people’s pensions.”

Smith has been on working people’s side throughout her career in politics, and working people are on her side as she seeks re-election – with the labor endorsement – to her first full term in the Senate.

Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy said Smith shares union values, like “dignity, justice and freedom for working people.” Jessica Looman, executive director of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, called Smith an ally of union tradespeople and all working people.

“As the former lieutenant governor of Minnesota, she understands what the workers in our state need, and has been an effective voice for Minnesota in Washington,” Looman added.

Being on labor’s side is “everything to me,” Smith said.

Sticking up for workers

Growing up in a politically active family, Smith said, she developed an early respect for the powerful role unions play in advocating for all working people. And after graduating from high school, she learned firsthand the benefits of carrying a union card.

Smith worked that summer as a bull cook on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Crews had to be flown into Prudhoe Bay, where they worked 12-hour days for six weeks straight before getting two weeks off.

“That was how the contract was negotiated,” Smith said. “Everybody wanted to go up there and just work like hell and then come home again. But because of that experience, because of being a member of a labor union, I was able to help put myself through college.”

Smith hasn’t stopped working hard since entering politics. As former Gov. Dayton’s chief of staff and, later, lieutenant governor, Smith has focused on leveling the playing field for working people – the same way unions do, she said.

“Certainly, labor unions stick up for their members, as well they should. But they stick up for regular folks doing jobs that are not organized too,” Smith said. “It’s that advocacy for a higher minimum wage, for paid family leave, for health care people can count on.”

Tina Smith meets with postal employees outside the Eagan distribution center.

A record of trust

Union leaders are quick to point out highlights of Smith’s work since Minnesotans voted to keep her in office two years ago.

• Weeks after that election, the federal government shut down. When it reopened in January 2019, following the longest shutdown in history, lawmakers agreed to repay federal employees for their lost wages.

But they left out federal contract workers, including many people in low-wage jobs like food service, custodial and security work. Smith authored a bill to make those forgotten workers whole, but the Republican majority refused to take it up.

• Later in 2019, Smith introduced the 21st Century Workforce Partnerships Act, which would encourage relationships between businesses and high schools to provide students the skills they need to find good-paying jobs and careers, including work in the union construction trades.

• This summer, when members of postal unions approached Smith with concerns that President Trump’s new postmaster general was making drastic changes that slowed down mail delivery, Smith used her position to sound the alarm. She and other elected officials questioned the postmaster about the impact his moves would have on election integrity. And it helped generate enough public outcry to get the administration to back off on further reforms for now.

More challenges await

But Smith wants to see Congress do more for working families, particularly with no end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight. “We still have work to do,” she said, to keep workers, businesses, schools and local governments afloat.

After hearing from working parents and employers in Minnesota that a shortage of child care has only gotten worse during the pandemic, Smith teamed up with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to write a bill that would invest $50 billion in expanding access nationwide.

“Child care is like the infrastructure we need in our communities for families to really be able to function,” Smith said, noting that the measure would also boost pay for child-care providers. “These are predominantly women, often women of color, and they often are making barely $20,000 a year. That’s not even enough to take care of their own families.”

Smith also believes Congress should craft an “industrial and manufacturing strategy” that puts the nation in a position to address the climate crisis – and, in the process, create jobs that are “clean and green and strong.”

And to make sure those jobs guarantee workers the right to join together, Smith supports the union-backed PRO Act, which would add teeth to nation’s outdated labor laws.

In it for the long haul

That’s a long to-do list, but union members who have worked closely with Smith don’t see her backing down.

Just ask members of Teamsters Local 120 who worked at Lakeville Motor Express. When the local trucking company closed abruptly in 2016, stiffing workers out of two weeks’ worth of wages, Smith, lieutenant governor at the time, blasted the company publicly and helped launch an official investigation.

“In my experience if Tina Smith does not say, ‘This is just like stealing from these workers, and I am paying attention to what is happening here,’ then Lakeville may have succeeded,” Local 120’s Paul Slattery said.

It took two and a half years, but Lakeville Motor Express agreed last year to a $1.25 million settlement that provided lost compensation to its former workers.

“Sometimes you have to be in the fight for a long time,” Smith said. “You don’t get immediate gratification, but you have to keep on fighting.”

And Smith said she is still fighting for that pensioner she met three years ago in Duluth, doing it the only way she knows how.

“I put my head down, I get the work done and I get results,” she said.

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