Obama Silent on Labor


Women.  Gays.  African-Americans.  All are groups whose historical and contemporary injustices have mobilized America’s liberal base.  President Obama offered acknowledgement in his second inaugural and even a few historical allusions, mentioning “Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall”—the sites of a women’s rights convention, a racist murder and civil rights march, and a police raid of a gay establishment.

But who was missing from this glittering multicultural mosaic of tolerance?

Ever-neglected labor, of course.  Yes, those door-knocking, winter-braving workers who brought us Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, 80,000 volunteer shifts in Ohio and 2 million voter contacts in the state where 60% of union households voted for Obama.  (Nationally, 58% of voters from union households backed Obama.)

Despite the 2012 actions of labor in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Nevada, Obama chose not mention the historical setbacks of American labor or to acknowledge their efforts on his behalf.  Why didn’t he mention, say, the recent Illinois Caterpillar strike which resulted in a defeat with far-reaching concessions including a wage freeze and an increase in worker health care costs?  Are not wage-depression, out-sourcing, and corporate-strong arming the unaddressed issues of this generation?  Or if Caterpillar’s small failed strike was unimportant to Obama or irrelevant to his administration’s narrative, why not mention the Chicago teacher’s strike–a victory for workers (in his home state) that challenges the extremes of education “reformers”?

Perhaps, in some twisted Washington conference room, such shout-outs are bad politics.  But isn’t the least the President could do is mention the history of those working people who have stood up to entrenched power for over a hundred and fifty years?  If one is so desperate for cheap alliteration why not present “Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall, and San Joaquin” (1933)?  Or how about Santa Clara Valley (1933)?  Or the San Francisco Waterfront (1934)?  How’s about the Streetcar Strikes (1900/1907/1908)?  The Steel Strikes (1919/1946/1959)?  The Savannah dockworkers Strike (1866)?

More people died in these events and dozens of actions like them.  And these strikes were certainly more dramatic than Seneca Falls and included a more diverse population of classes and races.

So why the neglect?

It’s not as if labor couldn’t use specific legislation, political encouragement, or even a public wink or backslap.  Organized Labor recently spent $20 million in Michigan to insert collective bargaining in the state’s constitution, only to receive “right to work.”  And the President has urged 2013 action on TPP.  This corporate beloved agreement is a mechanism to undertake politically unpopular “free trade” measures that grant new rights and privileges to companies and constrain regulators; measures that, according to Public Citizen’s Lori Walluch, “limit the regulation of financial services, land use, food safety, natural resources, energy, tobacco, healthcare, and more.”

The President’s neglect results from Obama’s acceptance of income inequality, his commitment to the discredited technocratic “consensus,” and timidity at facing down and welcoming the hatred of America’s corporate class.  The President has been quite clear:  A second term will consist of voting reforms, immigration, implementing the affordable care act, and if you’re still awake, perhaps we’ll discuss school uniforms before the 2016 debates.

After Obama’s win, AFL-CIO’s President Richard Trumka asserted in a hopeful tone that the President will back a bill supporting “card-check,” a provision that would make it easier for unions to organize by abolishing the secret ballot.  It is apparently Obama’s stealth labor item.  But with a Republican House occupied as it is with bilious rowdies like the Gohmert and Bachmann quarter, how far will such legislation journey?  And if it takes the midterm election to shave away some of the reactionary deadwood, can Obama accomplish “card-check” with his possible Democratic successors—their beady-eyes locked on 2016—dashing about for unlimited corporate coin?

Brett Warnke is a free-lancer who recently finished an internship at The Nation and can be reached at brettwarnke@gmail.com

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