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PowerPlayer: Labor Leader Maureen Martin

Monday, May 21, 2012


This week’s PowerPlayer is Maureen Martin, Director of Political Activities for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals. Ms. Martin was kind enough to chat with GoLocalProv about the labor movement and the future of Rhode Island.

1) Labor was considered a big winner in 2010 after Governor Chafee's victory and many wins in legislature. Tell us about your goals for the 2012 elections.

Besides working hard to get Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representatives James Langevin and David Cicilline re-elected, we will be using our resources to support the state and local politicians who we'll be using our resources to support the politicians who supported us and to find candidates where necessary. In the last few election cycles we have been spending a lot more time organizing, educating and activating our members and I think you saw the results of that in 2010.

Union members have become quite savvy about politics and elections and how it relates to their everyday, working lives. I'll be happy this year if we can put even more boots on the ground working on behalf of pro-worker, pro-labor candidates. The trick is, as always, to find candidates who will say what they mean and mean what they say.

2) Organized labor suddenly has this negative reputation in Rhode Island. Are you at all concerned that the public is turning on the labor movement?

For decades, conservative, right wing, anti-union organizations have worked to make it appear that labor's agenda is squarely at odds with commerce and business interests, especially small business interest. And, they have worked to separate the union from the unionized workers in the public eye. And they've been pretty successful with this message up till now. But I think the general public is a lot smarter than they're given credit for and we're starting to see this propaganda becoming less believable.

Everyday we read about big banks, big business, big money influencing elections, and bigger CEO pay and at the same time we're reading about record job losses, home foreclosures, services being cut and the middle class shrinking. The average citizen, even the most casual observers of life, will tell you - with-out a robust middle class population there will be no commerce, no small business and no public services. But we're not waiting around for small business to figure this out.

Joined by many other unions, the members of the National Education Association RI (NEARI) and the RI Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (RIFTHP) are participating in the "Unions Buy Local" campaign running from Mothers Day to Fathers Day weekend to show local businesses that union members are the people who support their business. Members are being asked to identify themselves as part of a union by presenting a "union buck" every time they shop or dine at a local establishment, pay local bills by mail or use a local service. The union bucks carry a message of how everyone wins when we have strong unions and a strong middle class to support local businesses.

3) Take us through a day in your life.

In order to be able to catch up on the news and a do few obligatory minutes of exercise working with my Wii Fit machine, who can't rat me out when I'm slacking, I need to be up around 6 AM. Much of the time I have an early meeting, but just as often I get to do some e-mail work from home. I try to limit my phone use in the car, mostly because I see how other drivers are distracted, but it's unavoidable with a job like mine. Because I work for both the RI Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals and the RI AFL-CIO, I get pulled in a lot of directions, all of it good. Depending on the season, I can be pretty busy organizing the RIFTHP locals and members around worker issues or legislative and electoral campaigns.

Representing labor on committees and boards takes up a lot time. Whether it's working for marriage equality so all Rhode Islanders have the same rights and access to services or trying to figuring out how labor can better support the good work of the United Way and the Salvation Army to fretting about the problems at the RI Public Transit Authority and working with Health RIght to help find a way to ensure affordable health care for all Rhode Islanders, every day is a busy day. This time of year you can find me at the state House a few afternoons during the week checking on legislation of interest.

4) What are the three biggest problems Rhode Island is facing today?

Jobs, jobs and jobs: creating jobs to get people back to work, protecting jobs by keeping people working and getting people to their jobs. One of the problems labor is tackling this year, that would help the jobs issue, is tax equity, or inequity. Partnering with a coalition of small business owners, college students, community groups and ordinary citizens, unions are working with the RITE (Rhode Islander for Tax Equity) campaign, addressing the growing disparity between the tax obligations of the well-to-do and the rest of us.

In 2006, the RI general Assembly gave tax breaks to the wealthiest Rhode Islanders hoping for a return of job creation and some economic stability. But that never happened. With the passage of tax fairness legislation that has been sponsored by Representative Maria Cimini (H7729) and Senator Joshua Miller (S2622), with wide bi-partisan support in both chambers, and a great outpouring of public support, increased revenue could be used to help small business owners to creates jobs, lower property taxes, restore funding to programs, ensure a robust public transportation system so people can get to work and fix our roads and bridges.

5) Tell us something nobody knows about you.

I think very few people know that just about everything I ever needed to know about being in a union, whether as a rank and file member or a union leader, I learned from growing up as the third oldest child in a family of fourteen children. We may not have lived through the adventures of the Three Musketeers in the French novel, but we certainly lived by their motto "all for one and one for all.” My parents did a good job of letting us know that we were all special, just like everyone else, and it kind of set me up for my job today and for the last few decades of union activism.

Quick Hitters

Role Model: I always respected that Mother Jones, the sharp tongued community and labor activist inspired women to engage in strikes and actions while fighting for social and worker justice way before women even had the right to vote. She was equally comfortable standing up to her union leaders as she was fighting discriminating government policy or brutal bosses.

Favorite Restaurant: No restaurant can compare to my husband's grilling dinner on the deck with family and friends over or just the two of us.

Best Beach: Also, can't beat the little fresh water beach in my back yard on Worden's Pond. It is perfect for any age grandchild!

Best Book You've Read in the Last Year: I don't get to read for fun much lately, so I was thrilled when one of my four grown daughters gave her sisters and me "Wicked" for Xmas. We then started a mini-book club and got together every two weeks to talk about life - and the book too. It was a sweet idea and it worked great. I love daughter time.

Advice for the Next Maureen Martin: Learn to speak in sports metaphors, it'll make life a lot easier.


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