Searching for Worker Voices at the White House

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

President Barack Obama speaks during a conversation co-hosted by at the White House Summit on Worker Voice, Wednesday, October 7, 2015, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. 

Nobody knew quite what to expect at Wednesday’s White House Summit on Worker Voice, which brought labor leaders, worker rights organizations, low-wage workers, and “high-road” employers together to talk about how to ease workers’ path toward collective action.

Some labor advocates openly worried that the focus of the event would skew toward newer organizing avenues and cast collective bargaining as a clunky relic of labor’s past.  Others were skeptical about the authenticity of the event, wondering if, in light of the recent agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, this was just the White House’s attempt at appeasing disgruntled labor leaders.

But for many in attendance, those apprehensions were allayed. “I am a big believer … of collective bargaining and unions as a tool to empower workers,” President Obama said at a town hall discussion at the close of the summit. He called on Congress to pass the WAGE Act, which would bolster worker-organizing rights and come down on companies that violated labor law. “[I]n today’s economy, we should be making it easier, not harder, for folks to join a union. We should be strengthening our labor laws, not rolling them back,” Obama said in his opening speech, going on to quote AFSCME President Lee Saunders: “'If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.'”

Obama’s language was a stark departure from his first speech on income inequality in Osawatomie, Kansas, nearly four years ago. In that talk, he mentioned unions only once, wages three times, and did not utter the words “collective bargaining” at all. By contrast, his summit speech “was the most incisive pro-collective bargaining statement I’ve ever heard from him,” says Larry Mishel, president of the labor-allied Economic Policy Institute, who went on to call it the strongest show of support for labor from a Democratic president in several decades.

Supplementing its reaffirmation of collective bargaining, the summit was also designed to highlight new ways to amplify worker voice when collective bargaining—as is increasingly the case—is not a viable option. “For contractors or workers who can’t join unions,” Obama said, “we should be finding new avenues for them to join together and advocate for themselves as well.”

A variety of panels addressed questions of how to use labor law to broaden collective bargaining, how to experiment with new organizing models in order to fill in gaps, and why the tension between the two strategies should not be seen as “either/or,” but as “and.”

“New kinds of organizing are still all about increasing access to collective bargaining,” says Veronica Mendez, co-director of the Centro de Trabajodores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), a Minneapolis-based worker center that has organized janitors for big box stores. “We all need to continue to be creative. That means holding on to the old things that work while experimenting with new ideas.”

Mendez, who sat on one of the summit panels, talked about the problems that corporations’ increasing use of subcontracting have created for workers, and touted CTUL’s success in pressuring Target to release a “Responsible Contractor Policy” that mandates standards for workers employed by contractors for the company. Mendez and a representative from Target talked about how the retailer came around to see the benefits of improving contract-worker standards. Target is now seen as a key corporate ally in the local Minneapolis Works campaign to raise wages, institute paid sick leave, and bolster worker protections.

Both the president and Labor Secretary Tom Perez spoke about how labor advocates can get companies to change their culture to embrace workers’ rights, and executives from companies like Kaiser Permanente, Market Basket, and Shinola boasted about how high wages and strong benefits are a cornerstone of their business operations. By reaching out to companies and pitching strong employee relations as a boon for business, the administration believes that “high road” employees can help ease corporate resistance to wage hikes, paid leave, and fair scheduling.

Still, worker voice and worker gains typically don’t originate from the management side of the table. “Any implications that we’re gonna get robust wage growth through a voluntary high-road model is a foolish notion,” Mishel said. “At the same time, it’s good to demonstrate that you can have high road employers survive in a market economy.”

With Congress under GOP control since 2011, the most significant labor-policy advances during Obama’s presidency have come from his appointees’ rulings on the National Labor Relations Board and his use of executive power over the federal contract procurement process. Obama has raised the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour, established mandatory paid sick leave, and required contractors to disclose labor law violations.

“He’s used [executive orders] as a way to signal to the private sector what he thinks they should be doing,” says Joseph Geevarghese, deputy director of the Change to Win labor federation. Change to Win is a sponsor of Good Jobs Nation, a campaign that’s fighting to raise federal contract workers’ minimum wage to $15 with benefits as well as the right to a union through a new executive order. The Obama administration so far has given the campaign the cold shoulder, which was made apparent by the lack of any invitation to any low-wage federal contract workers—of whom there is no shortage. “I think it’s ironic that the one group of workers that the president has the most ability to influence workplace conditions were not present at the White House,” Geevarghese says.

Obama’s second term has seen far more emphasis on worker rights than his first. In the midst of the Great Recession, the West Wing was more focused on macroeconomics, and his inner circle of economic advisers didn’t see collective bargaining as a central fix to income inequality. As in the Carter and Clinton presidencies, during Obama’s first two years in office, labor law reform, making it easier for workers to join unions, was passed in the House but narrowly failed to clear the Senate’s 60-vote hurdle, and, like Carter and Clinton, Obama didn’t go all out to ensure its enactment. Now, with the rise of the Fight for 15 bringing the struggle of low-wage workers—and all workers more generally—to the forefront of political discourse, the administration seems to have stirred.

“We expected our political leaders to lead on labor, but what we learned is that they follow,” Geevarghese says. “They’re directly responding to workers.”

To many in the labor movement, the Worker Voice Summit was a very clear affirmation that the White House is finally on the same page they are—though some say it was not nearly soon enough. “It’s taken a while to talk about inequality; it’s taken even longer to turn to wages as the key," EPI's Mishel says. "And now the whole issue of collective bargaining is front and center. It’s a tremendous advance from where we’ve been for decades.”

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