This being Labor Day and all, it might be appropriate to assess—from the express vantage point of organized labor—the job President Obama has done in his eight and a half months in office.
Our appraisal should be “realistic” rather than doctrinaire. Which means we ignore the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, RNC (Republican National Committee), and Wall Street Journal, all of whom have accused Obama of being “dangerously pro-labor,” as well as those hope-to-die radicals on the other side who think Obama has sold out the Movement.
Although Nader’s promise to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act was one reason I voted for him in 2000, I viewed his pledge as more symbolic than genuine—more indicative of a progressive labor philosophy than an actual game plan. After all, the man who sits in the oval office isn’t the king; he’s the president. Given our system of government, there’s a wide abyss separating what’s “right and proper” from what’s “politically attainable.”
That said, let’s not pretend. The president is still the most powerful voice in the country. It’s his job not only to lead, but to engage, to excite, to animate, and to inspire. The president didn’t run as the Big Bureaucrat; he ran as the Big Motivator. With inspiration as our template, and labor as our context, let’s take a look at Obama’s report card.
Replacing Bush’s two-term Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao (the vehemently anti-union wife of Republican senator Mitch McConnell), with former congresswoman and labor activist, Hilda Solis. If Solis’ administrative abilities come close to matching her labor credentials (one of her first official acts was to request 250 additional wage-and-hour investigators), she could turn out to be the most effective Labor Secretary since Francis Perkins. Grade: A.
Appointing labor-friendly lawyers Craig Becker and Mark Pearce to the NLRB’s (National Labor Relations Board) five-member panel. Becker and Pearce will join veteran Board member (and new chairman) Wilma Liebman. Because it’s the NLRB’s job to supervise union elections and adjudicate disputes between management and labor, it plays a crucial role in enforcing workers’ rights. Labor views these appointments as a giant step forward. Grade: A-.
Naming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Despite nagging concerns about her former service as a corporate attorney, Sotomayor’s rulings as a federal judge (as well as her unique personal history) indicate a strong social conscience. Only time will tell, but having been handed a lifetime appointment, this “wise Latina” could very well spread her wings and emerge as a labor firebrand. Grade: B.
Requesting a 5-percent increase in Department of Labor funding, and rescinding four of George W. Bush’s Executive Orders. Among Obama’s new Executive Orders: (1) requiring federal agencies to insert into all government contracts a clause requiring federal contractors to notify employees of their right to join a union, and (2) disallowing government contractors from passing on the costs incurred in persuading employees not to join a union. Grade: B+.
Agreeing to address the AFL-CIO convention on September 15, in Pittsburgh. Out-going president John Sweeney and in-coming president Rich Trumka, were successful in persuading Obama to address the House of Labor. As ceremonial and “show biz” as the appearance may be, it marks the first time in eight years that labor has gotten so much as a crumb thrown its way by the White House. Appearances matter. Obama could have begged off, but he didn’t. Grade: B.
Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, the archetypal savvy, pragmatic, behind-the-scenes operative. Obama was sworn in on January 20, and by January 21, Emanuel already realized what his mission in life was—to get Obama re-elected. To accomplish that goal, the chief-of-staff carefully advises the president not to rock the boat or disturb the Money Tree. Rahm Emanuel is to inspirational leadership and political risk-taking what garlic is to vampires. Grade: C.
The White House’s tepid support for the auto bailout. Even though Detroit was able to secure an $18 billion loan package, the White House treated the UAW (which had lost 400,000 members) and the Big Three (which was fighting for its life) as if they were beggars off the street or, worse, enemies of the state—subversive groups looking to exploit America’s generosity. In other words, they were treated the exact opposite of how Wall Street was treated. Grade: C-.
The administration’s refusal to expose Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala) for what he is—a hypocrite and liar. While his committee pretended that their reluctance to help Detroit was motivated by “economic prudence,” Shelby’s actual reasons were personal and self-serving. For three decades Alabama has been wooing foreign automakers with subsidies and tax breaks. Because there are already nearly 30 auto plants operating in Dixie, and because the anti-union South has dreams of becoming the New Detroit, Shelby needs the Old Detroit to fail. And even though the White House knew it, they still allowed Shelby to posture as the “voice of fiduciary restraint,” making the UAW his scapegoat in the process. Grade: D.
Obama’s campaign slogans, “Vote for Change” and “Yes, We Can.” Either Obama honestly believed he could change things (health care, labor law, the two wars, Wall Street, etc.), and was mistaken in that belief—which, alas, means he was naïve and ignorant. Or he knew he couldn’t change things, yet continued to speak non-stop and rhapsodically about doing so, making him a cheap politician doing what cheap politicians do. He can’t have it both ways. Grade: C.
The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Because the EFCA (card check) was, arguably, the most important labor initiative to come down the pike in the post-Taft-Hartley era, labor needed a candidate who could make it happen, and Obama assured them he was that man. By promising to make EFCA a priority, and not to be cowed by hostile Republicans or gutless Democrats, Obama received labor’s endorsement, confidence, and millions of dollars in union contributions.
Obama’s subsequent actions were disappointing. Just as he did with health care reform (mangling the presentation of “public option”), he botched EFCA from the get-go by allowing Party fence-sitters to circulate confusing and contradictory statements, and failing to prevent influential Democrats such as Sen. Diane Feinstein from jumping ship.
Fearing an avalanche of Republican opposition (and looking to salvage bipartisan support for “more important” legislation), Emanuel leaked word that the final draft of EFCA would not include the controversial card check provision, hinting that the White House had, in fact, never wanted the provision in the first place. Liberal Democrats were caught off-guard, and organized labor was outraged.
There’s a difference between a massive, wildly complex health reform bill and a stripped-down EFCA. One is complicated, the other simple. Even with a health plan that generously rewards the very interests it set out to reform (insurance and pharmaceutical companies), Obama will nonetheless boast that, while he didn’t get “all he wanted,” he still came away a winner. He’ll spin it, hype it, massage it and, ultimately, sell it—setting the stage for re-election in 2012.
Unfortunately, he will find that organized labor isn’t as receptive to bogus labor reform as Joe Citizen is to a watered-down health care package. Having experienced its share of government duplicity and double-crosses over the last seventy years, labor recognizes a betrayal when it sees one. Grade: F.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Americana”) and writer, was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org