Miller Defends Lobbying Stances

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 9, 2006

Harris Miller saw the future of American industry, and it was based on global cooperation.

So as a lobbyist for an information technology trade association, Miller trekked to Capitol Hill, arguing for the international interests of industry heavyweights such as Oracle and Microsoft and actively supporting legislation like the Northern American and Central American free trade agreements that loosened trade barriers.

But as Miller heads toward Tuesday's Democratic Senate primary against former Navy secretary James Webb, his support for a borderless trade world has gotten him into trouble with a key portion of the Democratic base: unions. Leaders for several sectors of the labor movement have blasted Miller positions that they say have hurt U.S. workers.

The union leaders have gone after Miller for his stewardship of the Information Technology Association of America, saying the organization played a crucial role in opposing restrictions on outsourcing.

They also have criticized comments he made before a congressional subcommittee in 2003, when he was asked to discuss the effects of sending American high-tech jobs overseas: "Outsourcing -- rather than trying to build and retain a substantial in-house capability -- remains the most effective strategy for conducting a wide variety of IT operations."

"The fact is he and ITAA are some of the biggest proponents of bringing in foreign workers while at the same time exporting American jobs," said Marcus Courtney, president of the Seattle-based Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, which is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. Courtney has criticized Miller's writings about unionizing high-tech workers, in which the candidate points out the difficulty of collective bargaining for such workers.

Miller said that his critics fail to understand the shifting global market and that his comments amount to descriptions of the changing world -- not direct advocacy.

"There are great marketplaces in countries like India and China and Brazil and Russia," he said in an interview. "It's exciting to walk into a place and see them using Dell computers and Microsoft software, wearing Nike shoes and watching movies made in Hollywood, not Bollywood. That's great opportunity. That creates jobs in the U.S."

He said he supports the government stepping in and working with unions and companies to help retrain displaced workers and accelerating the advent of broadband and other technological advances to rural areas.

"What many of these places need is a vision for the future," he said. "Government and industry must work together with the unions to come up with true pacts for them to get new jobs in their geographical location."

Although union membership is low in Virginia -- there are about 150,000 unionized workers in the state -- it still makes up an important constituency in state Democratic primaries, largely because registered union workers vote in higher numbers than the general population. Their high turnout is credited with helping to power Timothy M. Kaine (D) to the governorship in November.

Despite its influence, the state AFL-CIO has refused to take a position on the primary, however, saying it will not weigh in on a contest between two Democrats.

Miller's critics point to his support for expanding the H-1B visa program, which allows engineers and high-tech workers from abroad to work and live in the United States for up to six years. Detractors say the program has depressed wages for U.S. workers over the past several years, although various economic studies differ on the long-term impacts of the program.

"The visa program certainly works as a bridge to help bring the best and brightest here . . . but it's being used as a source of cheap labor," said Ron Hira, an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology who has testified against some of Miller's appeals in front of Congress.

Miller defends his support for such programs by saying they have wage protections for U.S. workers embedded in their regulations, though critics disagree. He defends his support for trade agreements by linking himself to other centrist Democrats, saying they are needed to equalize access to foreign markets.

"It all comes back to competing. . . . I supported [NAFTA and CAFTA] for the same reason that Bill Clinton supported them," Miller said in the interview. "I support them for the same way Mark Warner supports them."

Miller's campaign said that many of his union critics -- largely from the AFL-CIO's Department for Professional Employees -- make up a small segment of the entire labor movement. On Wednesday, for instance, he was endorsed by the Washington D.C. Building and Construction Trades Council, an AFL-CIO-affiliated umbrella group that represents 15,000 union families in Northern Virginia. He also has received support from the Teamsters and local chapters of several Virginia unions.

Indeed, several representatives for the labor movement said they felt comfortable supporting Miller, notwithstanding the attacks from their union brethren. In particular, they cited Miller's strong support for raising the minimum wage, now at $5.15 an hour, and his backing of federal legislation that would allow unions to organize more efficiently.

"I think Harris is going to be good for federal workers; I think he going to support our pay increases. I think he's going to support collective bargaining at the federal level," said Eddie Eitches, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 476. "I've questioned him on all these issues, and for my membership I think he going to be an excellent senator, if he gets elected."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company