BOSTON - In 2007, Ted Kennedy was so hot under the collar that he almost knocked a microphone down as he yelled at Republican senators for not supporting a minimum wage hike.
“We have still not had this institution, the United States Senate, go on record and say to working families in this country that they ought to get a raise,” he said during a session in the Senate chamber, his voice beginning to rise.
“Do you have such disdain for working Americans?” he continued, now yelling about the Senate’s foot-dragging on raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour. “What is it about it that drives you Republicans crazy?”
This vintage Kennedy fieriness was pivotal in getting the wage hike passed, and that fervor is also what enabled him to usher in a host of legislation to help working Americans in the past four decades, according to many labor experts and people who worked with him.
His passion for the working stiff was “heartfelt,” recalled Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, who worked with Kennedy on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee as labor counsel in the mid 1990s. “The wonderful thing about him is he cared personally about these people.”
In a similar minimum wage fight in the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., controlled the House and Bob Dole, R-Kan., the Senate, Kennedy was able to raise the wage from $4.25 to $5.15 an hour by being an “absolute obstructionist,” said Eisenbrey. “Every time Republicans tried to do something, he’d attach a minimum wage increase to it. They ended up having to filibuster their own legislations, and finally they gave up,” he added.
Kennedy leaves behind an impressive legacy of pro-worker legislation.
“From battling for fair wages, the right to organize and the opportunity for hardworking Americans of every background to achieve the American dream, for decades virtually every major piece of legislation to advance working families bore his name and resulted from his efforts,” said Anna Burger, Secretary-Treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.
Here’s an overview of some key legislative efforts Kennedy helped make a reality:
- Minimum wage: Most labor experts point to Kennedy’s relentless work on raising the nation’s minimum wage as his shining achievement for workers. All of the last three increases in the minimum wage were his doing, said Eisenbrey. In 2007, Congress gave America’s lowest-paid workers a $2.10-an-hour raise over two years following a decade of no increases.
- Worker safety: In 1970, Kennedy was one of the leaders who helped pass the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which essentially created OSHA. Prior to passage of the act, there were few federal health and safety protections for workers. Kennedy succeeded in defeating attempts to weaken the law in later years, Eisenbrey said, and in the 1990s he also extended the reach of OSHA to the U.S. Postal Service. While the postal service was covered by OSHA, the government agency did not have to pay penalties for worker safety violations. Kennedy helped change that.
- Health care for the jobless: In 1985, Kennedy co-sponsored the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, known as COBRA, requiring that unemployed workers be able to extend their health insurance coverage after leaving their jobs.
- Miner advocate: After the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia that left 12 miners dead, Kennedy helped pass the Miner Act of 2006 that enhanced safety technology such as wireless communications and also required rescue teams.
- Family leave: Kennedy was one of the key players in passing the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, given working families up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for ailing family members, a newborn child or deal with their own medical issues.
- Pension protection: In the 1990s, Kennedy derailed efforts by members of Congress to allow corporations to basically raid their own pension plans, Eisenbrey said. He also was a lead sponsor of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, which included new protections for workers and improved the transparency and strengthened the financial condition of pension plans.
Kennedy has also spearheaded efforts in the Senate to help stop employment discrimination against individuals because of their sexual preference, said Jim Sokolove, a labor attorney in Newton, Mass. The senator has been a strong supporter of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which has yet to pass. For many, Sokolove explained, “it was too hard an issue but he took it on.”
When unions or working men and women needed an ear in Congress, Kennedy was their man for the last 30 years, noted Sokolove. “I’m not saying other senators weren’t pro-labor, but if you needed a go-to person, it was Kennedy.”
“I feel like he’s from a generation that saw organized labor as an important force for social justice,” said Ruth Milkman, professor of sociology and labor specialist at UCLA.
Even as organized labor saw dramatic declines during his years in the Senate, she explained, “he never gave up on them and defended them to the end.”
Unfortunately, Kennedy leaves behind a host of unfinished pro-worker initiatives he cared very much about, according to Milkman.
At the top of the list was health care reform, which would give all working Americans access to health care insurance, she said. Kennedy also was a strong supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize, but his death might result in a delay in getting the legislation passed, Milkman said.
Kennedy also was pushing for a host of family leave initiatives, including paid family leave, that remain undone, Milkman added.
It’s unclear who will be able to fill Kennedy’s big labor shoes in Congress now, but there are a few contenders.
“Someone like Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has the potential to fill those kind of shoes,” said Wendy Schiller, associate professor of political science and public policy at Brown University. “Even though he hasn’t been vocal yet, he’s got the political capital and comes from a blue-collar state.”
Schiller also pointed to Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, both Michigan Democrats, as possible contenders to take up where Kennedy left off but added that it’s going to be impossible to find another Ted Kennedy.
But another Kennedy, she stressed, may not be what Congress needs right now because the labor landscape has changed so much.
“One thing liberals made mistakes on when it came to unions was thinking that unions were always right, and politicians like Kennedy said they were right,” Schiller said.
But labor issues need a 21st century approach, she said.
“We don’t want to stand in the way of progress.”