Harsh statements and public and private threats by Senate President Emil Jones over the past two years have prompted Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson to reach out to some labor leaders. Jones has been sharply critical of the construction trades unions, accusing them of freezing out African Americans and Latinos from apprenticeship programs and job sites. Black and Latino legislators have tried for years to convince the unions to open up their rosters, but Jones upped the pressure after he became Senate President in 2003, and his efforts have not been taken well by the other side.

During a recent television interview on NBC-5 Chicago, Jones uttered the phrase "right to work," which startled host Dick Kay. So-called "right to work" laws allow workers to opt out of union membership, and Kay pressed Jones about what he meant. "Black and Hispanic people deserve a right to work," Jones explained, but his use of the loaded phrase infuriated some labor leaders. He knew what he was doing when he said that, they claimed.

For good measure, Jones also threatened to oppose some other sacrosanct union rights. "I'm not going to be supportive of prevailing wage, project labor agreements if my people, [and] Hispanics, are not included," Jones said on Kay's At Issue program. Prevailing-wage laws require that workers on public construction projects are essentially paid the same as local union members. Project labor agreements require that construction projects use union laborers and pay them union wages. These are not things that a Democratic legislative leader usually opposes, especially considering how much money unions give to Democratic campaigns.

Jones' comments prompted Senate GOP Leader Frank Watson to write a letter to labor leaders in Illinois a week ago. "I opposed 'right to work' (in 1982) and my position hasn't changed," Watson wrote. "I can't understand why any elected official would threaten to undermine the wages of working people in the construction trades in order to make a point with union leadership," he continued.

Jones also made a not-so-veiled threat on Kay's TV show to strip the unions of their control over their own apprenticeship programs and give that control to the state. Watson addressed this in his letter as well. "[I]t's wrong for the legislature to micro-manage the successful apprenticeship programs run by trade unions."

Members of construction trade unions are generally more socially conservative than the rest of the labor movement, and many of them vote Republican. An alliance, however temporary, with Watson would not only put some counter-pressure on Jones, but probably be fairly popular within the rank and file. That might be why Jones sought to somewhat soft-pedal his remarks last week.

During an interview with me a few days back, Jones explained that when he said "right to work," he was talking about minorities who "deserve a right to work in these trade unions."

"The issue has been around for years," Jones said. "People in the community are raising holy hell about this."

Jones would only say that the state "should be more involved" with the apprenticeship programs and sidestepped questions about whether the state should take complete control.

Jones wouldn't repeat his threat to oppose prevailing-wage laws, but made it clear that he wasn't happy. "Prevailing wage for whom?" he asked. "Black people aren't working."

"I supported it in the past," Jones said about prevailing wage, and claimed that Watson has "always opposed it." And Jones pointed out that the black and Latino legislators who were bringing up the problems with the unions all have 90 percent pro-labor voting records, unlike the Republicans who were "twisting" his words and trying to obtain a political advantage.

To illustrate his point about union recalcitrance, Jones explained that the Dan Ryan Expressway refurbishing project "has only 4-percent African Americans working on the job," and said he often sees cars with Wisconsin and Indiana plates near highway and public-building construction sites, implying that the unions were putting out-of-state whites on the job instead of minorities.

The unions deny any of this is a problem, claiming they have greatly increased minority membership and have worked in good faith with Jones and other minority leaders on this issue. And they resent his implication that they are racists.

"It's gotten to the boiling point," Jones admitted last week. On that, he's entirely correct.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.blogspot.com).

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