XII. President Obama’s Timidity on Supporting Organized Labor

Organized labor has brought about many of the societal beneficial changes in the work life of the United States: the eight-hour work day, the 40-hour work week, health and retirement benefits and the prohibitions on child labor. Organized labor has played a major role in the development of the middle class. Yet organized labor has fallen on perilous days, beginning with the regime of Ronald Reagan, who dismantled the air controllers union, Patco. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts at 93.1 percent the nonunion share of the entire U.S. work force. At its height, organized labor comprised about 25 percent of the nation’s work force.

It isn’t the case that nonunion workers don’t want to belong to a union: polls show that 40 million unorganized workers wish they had a union in their workplace but fewer than 100,000 employees are able to form new unions each year through the current National Labor Relations Board election procedures. The deck is stacked against unions through the proliferation of right-to-work states and employers’ anti-union campaigns rife with illegal coercion.

In 2009, for example, according to Gordon Lafer, writing in the October 10, 2010 Nation magazine, more than 14,000 union supporters were illegally fired, suspended or otherwise financially punished in the past year. Under rules now in effect, pro-union employees are not provided with a list of eligible voters until seven days after an election has been scheduled.

The Employee Free Choice Act is the vehicle labor unions have chosen to unstack the deck against them. The proposed legislation removes current obstacles to employees who want collective bargaining and guarantees that workers who can choose collective bargaining are able to achieve a contract.

More specifically, the Employee Free Choice Act allows employees to form unions by signing cards authorizing union representation. The Act would also increase penalties on employers found to have willfully violated employees’ rights.

The Obama administration abandoned the Employee Free Choice Act in the face of intense opposition by big business. Nothing unites corporate lobbyists more than their animosity to labor unions.

President Obama has not been entirely hostile to organized labor. He has achieved some smaller victories for organized labor — “governing small.” as one labor leader put it — such as granting the nation’s airport screeners  limited bargaining rights. His appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and other agencies have made it easier to organize workers in the airlines, railroad and health care industries.

President Obama has come out against the Wisconsin legislative stripping of collective bargaining rights from all public employees, except firefighters and police unions. Also, he belatedly endorsed a vote against a ballot proposition — Initiative Two — which would have supported the draconian legislation against public employee unions pushed through the Ohio legislature by Governor John Kasich. His actions in regard to both Wisconsin and Ohio were marked by timidity.

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said that if organized labor’s very existence was threatened, he would put on a pair of comfortable shoes and walk a picket line. Yet, in the Wisconsin case, the sum total of his actions were to make one speech opposing the action of the legislators and governor, and exhorting the governors at the National Governors Association meeting to support collective bargaining rights. A woman in Wisconsin, noting Obama’s campaign promise, offered to buy him a pair of comfortable shoes in which to march. Obama ignored repeated appeals to visit Wisconsin during the effort to recall GOP senators who supported the decimation of bargaining rights.

The Ohio case is an interesting study in how President Obama tries to avoid taking definitive positions on controversial issues. When Bill Press, talk show personality and Democratic Party activist, learned from an Ohio congresswoman that, to her knowledge, Obama had not taken a position on the ballot initiative on collective bargaining rights, Press decided to ask Obama spokesperson, Jay Carney, if Obama had taken a position on the vote to take place in five days; also, he asked Carney if Obama had any plans to travel to Ohio before the election. Carney replied that he knew of no travel plans but that Press could infer from Obama’s Wisconsin position what his position on the Ohio vote would be.

Subsequently, Press received an email from an Obama deputy spokesperson, saying that Obama would probably favor a “no” vote. Press was urged by Senator Sherrod Brown’s office to get a more definitive statement, which Press subsequently did. Press’s radio announcement of Obama’s position was the only one I have been able to find.

The next blog will focus on some of President Obama’s anti-union positions and actions, particularly in regard to teachers’ unions. Also presented will be a description of what Obama should do or should have done to foster the trade union movement.




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