By CARL GREEN
Belleville, IL – Ed Smith recently returned from Washington D.C. to speak about the election to Illinois labor supporters, but it wasn’t the presidential election that was on his mind.
Instead it was the local elections for state legislators, appellate court judges and members of Congress that the celebrated national labor leader, as president and CEO of Ullico (Union Labor and Life Insurance Co.), the labor-owned insurance and investment company, discussed at the annual awards banquet of the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council on Sept. 1.
Speaking to a packed house at the Panorama Banquet Center at Bel-Air Bowl, the native of Cairo, IL, implored union supporters to boost the Labor vote on Nov. 8 to protect the Movement and the American way of life from corporate power brokers and their Republican allies.
“Without unions, who speaks for workers in this country?” he asked. “Let me tell you – nobody! No one! They know if they can get rid of the unions, workers don’t have a voice.”
After a full career as a state and national leader in the Laborers International Union, Smith moved on to Ullico in 2008.
Ullico provides insurance and financial services for union members and is a major investor in construction projects that put union members to work. Smith became its president in 2008 and CEO in 2011.
Smith previously had served as Midwest regional manager of the Laborers International Union from 1994 to 2008, as an international vice president, on the General Executive Board and as assistant to the general president.
Earlier, he was president and business manager of the Southern Illinois Laborers’ District Council.
Smith became president of Ullico in 2008 and its CEO in 2011.
Smith followed Congressional candidate C.J. Baricevic and Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan to the podium, but they all had the same message – Labor needs to get out the vote.
“The election in November is a decision between two great extremes,” Baricevic said. “One of them is about hope – about the people in this room being able to work and provide for their families. The other is about its antithesis. Our opponents in this upcoming election know that if they can break us, they will beat us, not just in November, but for every election moving forward.
“We have an obligation to fight for the men and women who go to work for a living,” Baricevic stressed.
Carrigan said local union leaders can take the lead in making this a successful election. People – including union members – these days may not pick up the home phone, read ads that come in the mail or even pay attention to televised ads, he said.
“What they will do is listen to their union leadership. They elected that leadership, and they’re willing to listen to that union leadership, through discussions at union meetings and discussions through your newsletters. Members will listen to you as far as turning out the vote.
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“From the bottom of the state to the top of the state, I can tell you, Labor has never been more solidified and more galvanized, because of a guy named Governor Bruce Rauner and his ‘turnaround agenda.’ We’ve got to take that energy and that momentum and turn it into a tremendous turnout on Nov. 8.”
Smith, although his activities have gone nationwide, showed he keeps a close eye on Illinois affairs, especially those involving the multi-millionaire Rauner, who spent the first two years of his term trying to destroy unions in the state and now is bankrolling candidates to increase his influence in the Legislature.
Smith compared Rauner to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, an avowed foe of the Labor Movement.
“As soon as he got the public employee unions beaten down, he went after the private sector unions and made Wisconsin a so-called ‘right-to-work’ state. That’s what we’re facing in Illinois. That’s what Rauner’s trying to do,” Smith said.
He noted the irony of Rauner making his millions with a company that invested public workers’ pension funds.
“He invested the teachers’ pension money and other union members’ pension money, made himself a millionaire and a multi-millionaire, and then he decided to turn those millions against the Labor Movement by trying to make Illinois a ‘right-to-work’ state, doing away with our prevailing wage law, doing away with public employee bargaining and doing away with Project Labor Agreements. Listen, this guy has got dead aim on the Labor Movement,” Smith said.
“I’ll give him one thing. He’s united this Labor Movement. I don’t care how much money he spends, we’ve got to send this guy a message and we’ve got to get out the vote.”
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Smith said electing Baricevic in the 12th Congressional District would send a strong message to the nation.
“This is not just about our union,” he said. “What it’s really about is our country – what kind of country we want. It’s about our kids and our grandkids. Do we want our kids and our grandkids to have the same things we have?
“We know what happens when you have a union. You’ve got wages you can raise a family on. You’ve got health care. When you’re too old to work, you’ve got a pension. And we’re going to shut the job down if it’s unsafe.
“We know we want our kids and our grandkids to have the same things. That’s what we can do. That’s what we’re fighting for. And all we have to do is go vote. Go vote, go vote, go vote!
“Get your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers and everybody at the union hall out. If we do, that young man (Baricevic) will be your next Congressman, fighting for us every day.”
Smith pointed out that the current Congressman, Republican Mike Bost, won in 2014 because union voters didn’t turn out to support the incumbent Democrat, Bill Enyart. Enyart won in 2012 with 157,000 votes compared to his opponent’s 130,000. Bost didn’t even get that many, totaling 110,000, but Enyart’s vote dropped by about 70,000 votes, including 30,000 in St. Clair County alone.
“Bost did not win this race. We lost this race,” Smith said. “We stayed home, we didn’t vote, and we paid the price. Look, it’s a fight every day. When we take a day off, we lose everything that we’ve worked for. We cannot take a day off. We have to get out and vote.”
The Congressional seat had been Democrat at least since 1944, when Mel Price was first elected.
“This is Labor’s district,” Smith said. “We’ve got to take that seat back, and we’ve got a special young guy in C.J. who can be there for many, many years and build seniority.”
Smith noted that Mother Jones and other great Labors leaders at times were arrested and jailed for speaking up for working people.
“We don’t have to go to jail,” he said. “All we have to do is vote! If we vote, we win.”