Breaking records: Innovative New Jersey State AFL-CIO training program behind union candidates winning office statewide

What began as a vision from New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech, now serves a model for other states
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(PR NewsChannel) / February 21, 2014 / TRENTON, N.J. 

In the late 1990’s, New Jersey’s labor movement found itself at a troubling crossroads. Faced with a changing political climate and enhanced lobbying by corporate interests, union leaders could no longer rely on allies in elected office to support issues important to labor. To maintain the labor movement’s relevance in the political process, something needed to change.

For New Jersey State AFL-CIO president Charles Wowkanech, the answer lay not in more lobbying, but in electing people who already knew first-hand the issues facing working families: union members themselves.

“I realized that we couldn’t simply rely on our traditional allies to stand up for labor when well-funded special interests were opening their checkbooks,” said Wowkanech. “The best advocate for working families is someone who comes from the labor movement, who knows middle-class values because they live them. There’s no one better for that fight than a union member.”

In 1997, Wowkanech kicked off a new Labor Candidates Program, geared towards recruiting union members to run for political office. The program – the first and still the only one in the nation – teaches candidates all facets of campaigning, fundraising, and governing at a multi-day Labor Candidates School held each summer and at Non-Partisan Training Seminars.

“We needed to develop an apprentice program in the field of politics, just as we apprentice workers in their chosen trades and fields of work,” said Wowkanech. “Not only are we giving working families a seat and voice at every level of government, we are creating a strong ‘farm team’ of seasoned political and community leaders to move up the ladder of government over time.”

Since its inception, the New Jersey State AFL-CIO’s Labor Candidates Program has elected 778 union members to offices ranging from local school boards, town councils and mayors’ offices, countywide office, to the State House. New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, a union ironworker and highest-ranked elected Democrat in the state, is a graduate of the program, as is Assembly Deputy Majority Leader and Labor Committee Chairman Joe Egan, a union electrician.

That electoral power was also seen in November 2012, when New Jersey was one of only two states to increase union turnout with a record 37 percent of state wide turnout attributed to union households. This was accomplished, in part, due to a full slate of union member candidates on the ballot.

Now, the New Jersey State AFL-CIO’s Labor Candidates Program seeks to send its first member to Congress.

With the retirement of Rep. Rob Andrews from southern New Jersey’s 1st District, state Senator Donald Norcross – a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – has announced his candidacy for the seat.

“Our Labor Candidates Program has grown to the point where we may see the first union member elected to Congress in recent memory, a tremendous accomplishment given the slow turnover of Congressional seats in the state,” said Wowkanech. “This is about working to get union men and women elected to offices at every level.”

Since the program’s inception, labor legislators have established New Jersey’s national-model paid family leave program, enacted a state Constitutional amendment increasing the minimum wage and tying future increases to inflation, created some of the nation’s broadest whistleblower protections, passed project labor and prevailing wage laws – both among the strongest in the country – and expanded card check in the public sector, among other victories.

Labor candidates and officeholders will now be among the front-line advocates in the New Jersey State AFL-CIO’s efforts to enact a statewide earned sick leave law.

Wowkanech said turning labor activists into union officeholders has been the single-most important step in halting anti-labor and anti-union laws at New Jersey’s borders. He held up the Labor Candidates Program as a model that can be replicated by other states. He said that turning around recent anti-union laws nationwide will require union members becoming the lawmakers to cast those votes.

“We have built the Labor Candidates Program into a true partnership among the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, our central labor and building trades councils, and our community and progressive allies,” said Wowkanech. “We’re doing something special here in New Jersey, and it’s not just strengthening and advancing our labor movement. By advocating on behalf of our community and progressive partners, we’re elevating all working families, as well.”

For more information on the New Jersey AFL-CIO’s Labor Candidates Program, visit:

Direct link:

SOURCE:  New Jersey State AFL-CIO

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