Labor's Special Friend
Barack Obama the presidential candidate declared that the nation needed "a president who doesn't choke on the word 'union.'" But now that Obama has assumed the presidency - and good riddance to his virulently anti-union predecessor -- is he delivering on his promise to lead a pro-union administration?
Absolutely, says the AFL-CIO, which played a major role in Obama's victory. The federation spent more than $450 million and put more than a quarter-million volunteers to work in its campaigns for Obama and pro-labor congressional candidates, and turned out millions of union voters.
"The political pendulum is swinging back toward sanity," says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "Barack Obama brings new hope to America's working families."
It is clear, in any case, that Obama's strong support for unions is genuine. He really meant it when he said -- not while campaigning for labor votes, but after his election - that "I want to strengthen the union movement in this country and put an end to the barriers and roadblocks that are in the way of workers legitimately coming together in order to form a union and bargain collectively."
Imagine George Bush making such a statement. He would indeed have been very likely to choke.
Obama already has done a lot to back up his words. For starters, he quickly rescinded some of the most damaging of the anti-worker executive orders that Bush had issued. One had allowed White House staffers to overturn, in behalf of Bush's employer allies, job safety regulations that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had promulgated. Obama ordered that those regulations and some new ones go into effect immediately.
He also voided a Bush regulation that had allowed federal contractors to be reimbursed for the costs of blocking unionizing drives. And Obama overturned a regulation that had banned so-called Project Labor Agreements, which in effect call for collective bargaining on federal and federally funded projects.
Unions are especially pleased -- and should be -- with Obama's appointment of Congresswoman Hilda Solis to head the Labor Department. Bolstered by what promises to be a substantial increase in funds and personnel for labor law enforcement, Secretary of Labor Solis is certain to move forcefully to protect and enhance workers' rights. Under Bush, workers had little protection from employer exploitation.
Workers didn't get much help, either, from the Bush appointees who controlled the National Labor Relations Board, which is supposed to protect workers' union rights. Bush's NLRB did the opposite in many cases, siding with employers to block workers from unionizing, particularly by failing to act against such illegal employer tactics as firing or otherwise penalizing pro-union workers.
Obama will soon be able to appoint a majority of board members who are certain to protect workers' rights. His appointee as NLRB chair, longtime board member Wilma Liebman, is expected to put a high priority on reversing board rulings that stripped union rights from thousands of workers.
Other important pro-labor steps taken by the new administration include:
*Creating a cabinet-level "task force" headed by Vice President Joe Biden to give working people a direct voice in developing and coordinating policies to improve the status of poor and middle class Americans.
*Obama's signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which Bush had threatened to veto. It overturns a Supreme Court decision that made it virtually impossible for women to sue for wage discrimination.
*The signing of a bill, vetoed twice by Bush, that reauthorizes a health insurance program for more than 10 million children of low-income workers.
Additionally, Obama's budget and stimulus programs call for major infrastructure projects that would provide as many as 3.5 million well-paying construction jobs. The programs also would give tax relief to working people, create job training programs to help low-wage workers and ex-offenders learn marketable skills and, among other changes, update the unemployment insurance system to provide more help to the jobless.
Several other promised reforms await White House action, including strengthening the union rights and job security of federal employees. What organized labor wants most is passage of the highly controversial Employee Free Choice Act that would remove the legal obstacles that have limited union expansion. Obama supports the act, but he's been giving signals that he would back a compromise version because of heavy pressure from opponents that threatens to block congressional approval.
Although some unionists are demanding that Obama take a stronger stand on the proposed act and otherwise show even more support for labor, most unionists seem to be highly pleased with his actions so far. The AFL-CIO praises him for taking "big, concrete steps" to lay the foundation for important change.
The federation's organizing director, Stewart Acuff, says Obama is "doing extremely well in very difficult circumstances. He continues to have our unwavering support and appreciation .... There is much to be done and we intend to do all we can to help him succeed."
Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based journalist, has covered labor and political issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.