Will Labor Get What it Wants From Obama?

Labor organizations around the country were thrilled on Sunday after Barack Obama came out in support of the workers who occupied a closed Chicago factory in an attempt to secure back wages. "I think they are absolutely right," Obama said. "These workers, if they have earned their benefits and their pay, then these companies need to follow through on those commitments."

"It was huge," Bruce Klipple, secretary-treasurer of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the union representing the workers, told the Prospect. "[For] the president-elect to come out and make a statement like that in support of workers trying to bring about justice, it's something that labor hasn't experience in quite a long time."

Bill Samuel, director of Government Affairs at the AFL-CIO, concurred, "What a breath of fresh air, to have a national leader take the side of workers."

It's something of a breakthrough for Obama. On labor issues, at least, the transition has been a bit rocky. When Obama rolled out his economic team, consisting mainly of center-left policy veterans, he did not include his pick for labor secretary, prompting muted public criticism from some unions and their allies. The week before, incoming White House Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel, speaking to a group of business leaders, had declined a question about the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), labor's No. 1 legislative priority. His refusal to discuss EFCA was dismissed by transition officials who reiterated Obama's commitment to the legislation.

Despite this, labor officials remain positive about the prospects for labor under Obama.

"We believe that the president is going to set the policies of this administration, not his Cabinet members, and second, even among his Cabinet members who may be seen as centrist, the center of the party has moved," Samuel said. "We're talking about a $500 billion jobs bill. No one is talking about free trade as the answer to our economic crisis."

Indeed, the situation has begun to turn around. Last week, Vice President-elect Joe Biden announced that his chief economic adviser would be Jared Bernstein of the labor-friendly Economic Policy Institute. This was quickly followed by Obama's comments in support of the protesting workers on Sunday.

But above all, union leaders I spoke with stress the importance of EFCA, which the president-elect supported as a senator, to their movement. The legislation would require employers to recognize unions when a majority of workers sign cards in favor of unionizing, a process known as card check. Current labor law allows employers to demand elections when they receive the cards, beginning a six- to eight-week campaign where employers can hold mandatory meetings to attack unions, fire lead organizers, or change their schedules and forbid workers from discussing the union during business hours. Often, lists of workers -- voters -- aren't given to union organizers until shortly before the election.

"Only one side gets to campaign," Samuel said. "There isn't a member of Congress who would run for office under the rules of an NLRB election."

Until 1974, card check was the most common way to organize a union, and even today companies like Cingular Wireless (now AT&T) and Kaiser Permanente have accepted card-check organizing without demanding an election. But labor officials predict business interests will organize a $200 million campaign against EFCA, claiming the bill attacks "the secret ballot" even though the legislation would allow just 30 percent of workers in a given business to force an election if they desire it. The "secret ballot" sound bite doesn't reflect the truth of union elections, but it offers a formidable public relations challenge. "It took me five minutes to describe [card check] to you; it takes them 15 seconds," Samuel said.

"The Chamber of Commerce is coming out and saying that the workers are going to lose their democratic right to vote; well, workers pretty much lose their right to vote when they petition the labor board," Klipple said.

The unions would like to see EFCA pass as part of whatever economic-stimulus package materializes early next year, arguing that a new jobs program should allow workers to collectively bargain for their wages. They also note that while the U.S. economy has recovered from two recent recessions, neither recovery saw improvements in income inequality for middle-class workers. "We have to create jobs ... and workers have to have a voice in those jobs [through union organizing] so that they're good jobs," Anna Burger, the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union and chair of the Change to Win coalition, said. "We have a huge economic crises that we have to grow our way out of, but we have to take this step and it won't cost the government a dime."

While the new administration and congressional leadership have reiterated their support for the card-check bill, they haven’t signaled that the bill will come up for a vote as part of the stimulus package that will be the government’s first priority in January. Obama himself declined to specify a timetable in a Tuesday interview. The bill, which passed the House in 2007, was filibustered successfully in the Senate after 52 Senators voted for cloture, eight less than the required 60. Vote counting for the bill's next appearance is murky, but with seven new Democratic senators, the situation looks slightly more optimistic than it did in 2007. Nonetheless, Republicans see the issue as a way to unite and rally a somewhat fractured party while picking off some vulnerable Democrats.

But there are labor priorities that will be easier for Obama to achieve. One is choosing a strong labor secretary; among the top candidates are former Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, union activist Mary Beth Maxwell, and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. Bonior is the consensus choice among the unions, and though he says he’ll serve if asked, he has thrown his endorsement to Maxwell, who would be the first openly gay Cabinet member. Sebelius has a higher national profile than either but comes from a state not known for its support of unions, though she herself has generally supported labor priorities. There are no indications that union leaders have been extensively considered for the post, reflecting conventional wisdom that labor leaders don't belong in the department despite the proliferation of business and financial types at Commerce and Treasury. Nonetheless, labor leaders say they'll be pleased with someone who prioritizes workers and is prepared, in the words of Burger, to modernize the Department of Labor for the "21st century" worker.

Also as important as putting a strong advocate in place is increasing the resources at the Department of Labor and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) so agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration actually enforce regulations in the spirit of the law; similar impact could be felt with more attention to the Mine Safety and Health Act and the Family Medical Leave Act. Accomplishing this task could be as simple as increasing staff: Klipple recalls meeting NLRB agents in the field when he was an organizer in the 1970s and 1980s, but now workers seeking adjudication need to go themselves to a regional office. Imagine asking your boss for a day off to head for the nearest NLRB office so you can protest his or her management policies.

Worker-friendly appointments are important beyond just the Department of Labor. Staffing decisions at Treasury, Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development would affect labor's priorities. Even the Federal Maritime Commission, which has blocked efforts to organize port workers, could be made more union-friendly with Obama's appointments.

"We have a lot of union leaders or staff involved in the transition in a variety of places," Burger said. "I've been totally excited ever since Election Day."

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