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VOL. 129 | NO. 128 | Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Cohen Touts Labor Union Endorsements

By Bill Dries

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U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, rolled out endorsements Monday, June 30, from much of the leadership of local labor unions in his re-election campaign.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen says he has talked with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. about city benefits changes that have sparked protest by city employees and retirees.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

The endorsements in the Aug. 7 congressional primary pitting Cohen against challenger Ricky E. Wilkins included the AFL CIO Tennessee Labor Council; the local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Boilermakers local 263; the Memphis Building Trades Council; Sheet Metal Workers local 4; and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local 474.

One of the union leaders at the announcement at the IBEW union hall in Midtown also asked Cohen his position on health insurance cuts for city employees approved by the Memphis City Council last month as well as proposed cuts in pension benefits for the same employees.

“I have expressed my opinion to (Memphis) Mayor (A C) Wharton (Jr.) personally on my thoughts on this issue,” Cohen said. “But we elect city councilmen and a mayor and it’s their job. If I infringe on the turf of the city council, they are not going to appreciate it and my input is going to be negligible.”

The question touches on what has been one of the major disagreements between Cohen and Wilkins in the primary campaign.

Wilkins has been critical of Cohen for not being involved in local issues. Cohen has said he is involved but only gets involved in issues in which he can make a difference.

When asked what he told Wharton, Cohen said it was private and also took a jab at Wilkins, who has accused Cohen of “pandering” to voters for attention.

“If I did that, there would be no reason to do it privately,” he said of his position on the benefit cuts. “If I did it, it would be pandering and we don’t want to be a panderer. … For people who have taken a position publicly, I don’t know what they would prefer – a tax increase or laying off people.”

But there were a few glimpses of Cohen’s views on the matter.

“I don’t think it should have all fallen on the health benefits or the pension benefits of people who have certain rights,” he added. “It could have been a mix of taxes and layoffs and efficiencies and all. But the council has got a tough job and I don’t know all the issues. I just know what my philosophy is.”

Meanwhile, in an email blast to citizens Monday, council Chairman Jim Strickland called the June 17 council decision on health insurance benefits and the operating budget for the fiscal year that began Tuesday “a necessary but sorrowful” decision.

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