Measured against these descriptions of actions President Obama has taken in support of organized labor — with his support of collective bargaining rights for public employees being minimal in nature — Obama has been largely hostile to organized labor. It has already been mentioned that Obama abandoned the Employee Free Choice Act. He supported and got legislation passed establishing Free Trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Labor unionists are particularly incensed with the Columbia agreement because ever since we started funneling billions of dollars to Columbia to fight drug cartels, many union leaders and activists have been killed without any effective counter-actions by the government of Columbia. The South Korean agreement is opposed because it will likely cost jobs among unionized auto workers in the United States.
Barack Obama campaigned on raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour — a measure strongly supported by labor unions because it will establish a higher wage floor — but he has not touched the issue since.
In regard to unionized teachers, President Obama has seemingly gone out of his way to alienate them. He continues to support high stakes testing, even though that deforms the educational environment by elevating the teaching of a subset of skills over the broader educational development of the child; also, high stakes testing provides an incentive for teachers to “teach to the test.” He is a strong proponent of closely tying teacher evaluation to student performances on tests. Obama is also a great friend of charter schools, even though 95 percent of them do not have unionized teachers.
On a more symbolic level, President Obama had a very public meeting with former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Bush is a strong foe of unionized teachers and a leader in the movement to expand online education, which diminishes the role of teachers.
Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, has rendered what might be the consummate organized labor verdict on Obama: “Obama campaigned big, but he’s governing small.” An Associated Press article of September 5, 2011, describes labor unions shifting money out of Democratic congressional campaigns and into states to counter Republican anti-union measures.
Although the following section is not limited to unionized workers, its overall premise is that the absence of unions is mainly responsible for the small worker share of monetary gains.
One of the most illuminating pictures of how little of the economic pie gets cut for the benefit of the workers in a company or corporation is drawn in an article entitled “Where’s the economic recovery?” by Harold Meyerson, appearing in the March 9, 2011 Washington Post. Meyerson uses as a prime reference, Mark Whitehouse of the Wall Street Journal, who looked at how businesses were dividing up the economic pie, 18 months into every previous recovery from a recession since 1947. Whitehouse found that 58 percent of the increases in productivity trickled down to workers in increased wages. In the latest recession, in contrast, wages rose by a minuscule 0.3 percent. Productivity increased 5.2 percent during the last recession but just six percent of the productivity gains have gone to the newly productive workers.
Where is the other 94 percent going? It is going to funds on the corporate balance sheets; to shareholders and to companies’ stock buybacks. In the first three quarters of 2010, according to Standard and Poors, companies’ purchase of their own shares came to $212 billion.
According to research from the National Employment Law Project, as of January, 2011, 40 percent of the jobs lost in the latest recession came from higher-wage industries, but just 14 percent of the jobs created during the recovery were in those industries. The top three growth occupations were retail sales clerks, cashiers and food preparers; each has a median hourly wage of less than $10.
Harold Meyerson attributes much of the imbalance in monetary gains during the recovery to the absence of unions: the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts at 93.1 percent the nonunion share of the entire private sector work force. Meyerson concludes: “Absent unions, workers are dependent entirely on management’s willingness to share their increased revenue with their employees. And absent unions, no such willingness exists.”
What Should Obama Do or Have Done?
The major thing that President Obama should do is to begin making the case why the almost total demise of labor unions has been a major cause of the severe economic doldrums we now are in. In that context, he should make the case for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and also urge raising the minimum wage. He also needs to show some real fire and fervor in raising public opposition to the assault on collective bargaining rights of state and local public employee unions.
As developed in the blog on education, charter schools have many flaws and Obama puts far too much stock in them. Charter schools are nominally public but have less accountability and more student selectivity than do fully-defined public schools.
President Obama should also stop championing high stakes testing and moderate his linking of teacher evaluations to student test scores.