Gov. John Bel Edwards is openly embracing the labor groups that helped elect him last fall, vowing to them that he won’t turn his back now that he’s in office.
“I never once — not one time — tried to distance myself from labor while I was running for governor in this state that is supposed to be so overwhelmingly Republican and overwhelmingly against labor,” Edwards told a crowd of about 50 builders, electrical workers, plumbers, painters and other organized laborers Wednesday.
“Now that I’m governor, I’m not going to do it either.”
Edwards was the closing speaker for the first day of the Louisiana State Building Construction Trades Council’s annual convention.
Edwards’ early support base was built from several labor groups, including teachers’ unions — an about-face in a state that wasn’t so friendly to organized labor or its causes under former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Jindal frequently butted heads with teachers’ unions, and he openly supported business interests and legislation that would impact labor groups, including a bill that would bar them from using automatic payroll deductions for membership dues.
“There is a new day in Louisiana,” Edwards told the labor group Wednesday.
Tiger Hammond, president of the builders’ group, introduced Edwards as “no stranger to anyone here.
“He was here last year and the year before, as a state legislator,” Hammond said, praising Edwards’ commitment to organized labor’s priorities.
He said the group didn’t hesitate to back Edwards’ run for governor last year and worked hard to get rank-and-file members to support his campaign, as well.
“It was an easy choice for every one of us,” Hammond said.
Since being sworn into office on Jan. 11, Edwards has been on a whirlwind tour of speaking engagements — health care groups, agriculture groups, regional chambers of commerce and many other interests.
But this week in particular, he has spent time with the organized laborers that were staunch backers of his run for governor last year. Tuesday, he met with the Louisiana Educators Association.
“I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in had it not been for you,” he told the builders’ group Wednesday, speaking without his usual prepared remarks.
“When I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning, thinking about all the problems I’ve got, I want to blame you,” he added with a laugh.
Many of Edwards’ recent speeches, including those to the labor groups, have highlighted the state budget crisis. Louisiana faces at least a $750 million budget shortfall in the current year that is prompting Edwards to call a special legislative session later this month. In the next budget year, which begins July 1, the state faces another $1.9 billion shortfall.
“You have to share my resolve to work together, because we have some tremendous challenges right now,” he told the Wednesday crowd.
Edwards’ positions often line up with labor groups on issues like support for an increased minimum wage and gender pay equality.
The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which was created to fight the influence that organized labor wielded in Louisiana in the 1970s, endorsed Vitter — which the group has rarely done in a gubernatorial race.
Edwards also has met with LABI and other business groups since taking office.
But he told the builders’ union that he makes a point to stress his support for organized labor.
“I have never shied away from telling them that, as the governor of Louisiana, I expect you to give labor an opportunity to compete for those jobs,” Edwards said. “Too often in the past, we’ve used our tax dollars to incentivize developments and then they hire people who not only exclude labor from consideration, they go out of state to hire people.”