Sen. Edward Kennedy, Champion of Workers’ Rights, Dies at 77

Kennedy worked to reform the health care system, increase the minimum wage and help unions organize.

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WASHINGTON — Sen. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, the longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts who died Tuesday night at age 77, was a major champion of the American worker for more than four decades­, from reforming the health care system to increasing the minimum wage and helping unions organize.

This story first appeared in the August 27, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Kennedy, who died of a cancerous brain tumor, will be buried on Saturday next to his brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, at Arlington National Cemetery here.

Kennedy’s long-standing career in the Senate began in 1962. His diligence as a legislator earned him the nickname “The Lion of the Senate,” revered by his allies and respected by his foes. Even during long, challenging months of chemotherapy, Kennedy refused to give up the mantle for universal health care — one of the key issues of the Obama administration — and workers’ rights.

“He was there in the darkest hour for American workers, not only in terms of economic bad times but also during the Reagan [former president Ronald Reagan] years when unions were a dirty word,” said Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United, which represents 150,000 textile workers, apparel laundry and retail distribution workers. “Sen. Kennedy was our voice on Capitol Hill, and he is irreplaceable.”

Raynor said Kennedy’s single greatest achievement in protecting workers was his leadership in helping craft a bill that established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970. OSHA’s mission, as part of the U.S. Department of Labor, is to prevent deaths, work-related injuries and illnesses by enforcing standards for workplace safety and health.

“OSHA would not exist without Sen. Kennedy,” Raynor said.

More recently, Kennedy worked to help save jobs for workers at a unionized military apparel contractor in New Bedford, Mass., Raynor said.

He also influenced legislation to help unions organize, protect workers from pay discrimination and bolster pension and unemployment insurance.

Given his staunch support of labor, the indefatigable Massachusetts senator often had a prickly relationship with U.S. businesses and the Bush administration.

“He could be your fiercest adversary or your best friend,” said Neil Trautwein, vice president and employee benefits policy counsel at the National Retail Federation. “I spent more time fighting against Sen. Kennedy’s proposals than working with him, but he had the rare ability to see in today’s adversary tomorrow’s ally and that is what made him such a fine legislator…”

Kennedy found a new ally in the White House with President Obama, at least philosophically, on a wide and deep range of social issues.

The President and senator had an alliance on health care reform, which has stirred vituperative nationwide debate and hit Obama’s popularity. Trautwein said the health care reform legislation suffered without Kennedy’s “personal touch” and mastery of consensus building.

“If you spend enough time with reform-minded people, you can really get a sense of the achievable and what the reform market will bear, and I think that sensibility, which Sen. Kennedy was a master at encouraging, was missing and I think it has handicapped the current debate,” Trautwein said.

That Kennedy did not live to see major health care reform enacted was seen as another tragedy of sorts by many in U.S. labor circles.

“He would have been so happy and proud to see a strong health care bill put in place,” said Thea Lee, policy director for the AFL-CIO. “It’s a terrible thing he didn’t see it happen.”

Obama and Kennedy also shared a loose alliance on a pending contentious bill that would make it easier for workers to form a union.

The legislative proposal, known as the Employee Free Choice Act, would essentially change the method of organizing a workplace to an open card-check system from a secret-ballot election that has been the standard for decades.

Lee at the AFL-CIO said the labor movement “missed his voice during negotiations to get to the 60 votes we need in the Senate” on EFCA, which could ultimately end up dropping key provisions such as one that would force employers to certify a union if a majority of employees sign cards in support of one to reach a compromise.

Lee said the labor movement will continue the fight for EFCA and health care in Kennedy’s absence, to help preserve his legacy.

“Our goal is to preserve the essential elements of the bill [EFCA] to make it easier for workers to join a union and remove some of the obstacles and discourage illegal behavior that employers engage in,” she said.

U.S. retail lobbying groups such as the NRF and Retail Industry Leaders Association have poured millions into advertising and lobbying campaigns to defeat the bill, arguing it would add undue peer pressure to the process.

In some notable instances, the industry backed Kennedy’s causes, as in the case of legislation authorizing the first minimum wage increase in 10 years, which the late senator helped usher through Congress. The measure raised the federal minimum wage in three steps to a total of $7.25 an hour as of July 2009.

From the minimum wage and immigrants’ rights to pay and sex discrimination in the workplace, Kennedy never tired of taking up the next legislative fight.

He claimed victory on one of those fights earlier this year when Obama signed into law a bill that made it easier for victims of pay discrimination to file lawsuits against employers.

“The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act will clearly help to end unfair discrimination in the workplace,” said Kennedy. “Under President Obama’s leadership, we’ll continue to put working families first and bring needed change to America.”

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