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
Absolutely, says the AFL-CIO, which played a major role
in Obama's victory. The federation put more than a quarter-million volunteers
to work in its campaigns for Obama and pro-labor congressional candidates,
turned out millions of union voters, and contributed the largest share of the
$450 million spent by organized labor on the campaigns.
"The political pendulum is swinging back toward
sanity," says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "Barack Obama brings new hope to America's working
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
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starters, he quickly rescinded some of the most damaging of the anti-worker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,
helping employers block workers from unionizing, particularly by
failing to act against such illegal employer tactics as firing or otherwise penalizing
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
Other important pro-labor steps taken by the new
*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
*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
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."
Copyright (c) 2009 Dick Meister