Working Class Hero?
Fletcher supports public employees' right to organize
By Alex De Grand

Politics are often strange, but occasionally they can be downright disorienting.

Republican Ernie Fletcher is the congressman who supports "right to work" laws and earns high marks from business groups.

He is also the one to espouse support for a public employee's right to collective bargaining - a big priority for Kentucky organized labor.

What gives?

Answering questions August 22 at an event where he was presented the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, Fletcher said he believed public employees should have the same rights to association and collective bargaining as private employees.

Such a statement can be pretty bold in a state where the legislature has repeatedly slapped down bills to give such rights to public employees due, in large part, to the steadfast opposition of conservative lawmakers who probably have more in common with Fletcher than not.

But Fletcher pointed to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 as conservative support for his position.

Fletcher noted one of the first things Newt Gingrich's Republicans wanted to do was to place government under the same rules and regulations that it imposes on the private sector - including collective bargaining laws.

Among those to learn of Fletcher's opinions on collective bargaining is a group of city employees in Lexington that have been discussing the possibility of unionization for several months.

Mike Fitzpatrick, president of the Frankfort firefighters union working for the Fletcher campaign, met August 17 with representatives of the Lexington sanitation workers and their supporters.

"[Fletcher] feels everyone should have a right to sit down and talk about their wages and working conditions [with their employer]," Fitzpatrick told the group. "It doesn't matter if you're a city employee or a private sector employee."

Fitzpatrick acknowledged Fletcher's view would, at best, be characterized as "unorthodox" among Republicans who have a long history of opposing union interests.

"I'm a Republican and I know that," Fitzpatrick said.

But Fletcher is different, Fitzpatrick said.

"I know this: [Fletcher] is sick and tired of being stereotyped as a Republican not caring about the little guy," Fitzpatrick said.

Ironically, sanitation workers have complained about Fletcher's Democrat opponent, Scotty Baesler, as the one who has been uncaring - indifferent to their problems of low pay and dangerous working conditions.

Sanitation workers charge that Baesler, when he was mayor of Lexington, threatened them with privatizing garbage collection services if they didn't shut up.

The Baesler campaign did not return calls for comment.

Fitzpatrick extolled the virtues of unionization and downplayed threats from city officials.

"When you unionize, [city leaders] try to de-emphasize the union. City officials will say 'No, we gave [raises and new equipment.] on our own! We're good to our employees!'" Fitzpatrick said.

That just isn't true, Fitzpatrick said.

It is also doubtful city officials can deliver on their threats to privatize city services as easily as they claim, Fitzpatrick said.

Recalling his own experience as a union activist, Fitzpatrick said one city looked at privatizing fire protection services and only found that it would actually be more expensive.

Fitzpatrick told the group that sanitation workers are right to want more when the rest of the nation is enjoying the benefits of a strong economy.

He also refuted the argument that sanitation workers shouldn't be paid much because the job doesn't require lots of education.

"Ask people, 'Would you do their job? Would you do it in the dead of winter or the heat of summer? Would you pick up garbage full of maggots?'" Fitzpatrick said. "Education has nothing to do with it,"

Fitzpatrick told the group that sanitation workers have more influence than they may believe.

"You have all the power," Fitzpatrick said. "If some average Joe doesn't get his trash picked up, no one cares. But when a [rich person] doesn't get his trash collected, there's trouble."

Fitzpatrick cautioned the group there is only so much Fletcher can do for them beyond generally supporting their right to organize.

Fletcher said as much himself, stating he wouldn't encourage or discourage the sanitation workers from organizing.

As a congressman, Fletcher said he would do what he could to represent the interests of sanitation workers just as he would for any other group in the district.

But at a time when Fletcher is picking up support from other working people including an endorsement from the International Association of Firefighters/Kentucky Professional Firefighters, he wouldn't mind the backing of the sanitation workers.

"Nothing I would enjoy more is the sanitation workers' endorsement," Fletcher said. "I have the utmost respect for the service they provide and the job they do."

Alex De Grand can be reached at 225-4889 ext. 232 or