State AFL-CIO's first Lincoln leader hopes to help non-union members, too

2013-12-16T03:25:00Z 2015-04-01T16:46:19Z State AFL-CIO's first Lincoln leader hopes to help non-union members, tooBy DON WALTON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Rodney Vlcek says he approaches his new position as leader and spokesman for 24,000 Nebraska working men and women with "two ears and one mouth."

And that's the mindset he will take to the Capitol next month when the 2014 Legislature convenes and Vlcek will be in the Rotunda representing the interests of the members of the state AFL-CIO.

Vlcek is the first Lincolnite to be elected president of the state labor union organization, headquartered in Omaha. He succeeds Ken Mass of Omaha, who previously headed the AFL-CIO and was a familiar face in the Rotunda for a dozen years.

A big piece of Vlcek's job is to "represent the interests of people without the loudest voice because they're too busy working," he said during an interview in Lincoln.

And that representation will look out for the interests of people who are not union members as well as those in organized labor, he said.

The State AFL-CIO will work to help protect Social Security, be "at the forefront" of immigration reform, fight for tax equity in Nebraska and support the proposed expansion of Medicaid in the state, Vlcek said.

And look for strong labor involvement in campaigns next year for the governorship and seats in the Legislature, he said. Those are the election year priorities, although there also will be engagement in the Senate and House races.

"We want to get people registered," Vlcek said. "And we want to get them to vote."

The AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education (COPE) will issue its endorsements at a convention in Lincoln on March 22.

After his graduation from Lincoln High School and an apprenticeship at what then was Burlington Northern, Vlcek worked at the Goodyear plant in Lincoln for 27 years, chiefly as a forklift operator. He was a member of the United Rubber Workers, which later was absorbed into the United Steelworkers.

Vlcek left Goodyear on Oct. 1 and moved up from the AFL-CIO vice presidency to president of the organization.

The Lincoln Goodyear plant provides one example of a changing U.S. workforce affected by the growth of an international marketplace, the export of U.S. jobs overseas and manufacturing automation. The plant in Havelock once employed 1,800 workers; it now has 350 to 370 employees.

Organized labor's position on issues leads to social and economic benefits that impact people who may not be union members, Vlcek said, and moves far beyond labor issues like workers compensation and the minimum wage.

"We're totally behind Medicaid expansion," he said. "These are our neighbors."

"We are against decreasing income taxes for the highest-income population in the state. Good for them, they're doing well and we're happy for them. But we don't want the tax burden transferred to others less able to pay.

"Property taxes are the big issue," Vlcek said.

"We want to protect Social Security for everyone," he said. And that essentially can be accomplished by raising the cap on income subject to the Social Security payroll tax, Vlcek said.

Immigration reform should include a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who have settled illegally in the United States, he said. Many of them no doubt live and work in Nebraska, he said.

"Breaking up families would be unacceptable," he said.  "Family is part of what they are here for."

All of that represents and reflects the history of the labor movement, Vlcek said. 

"We're looking out for people."

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.

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