Big Labor’s expectations of Obama

Today’s topic: What should we expect from the Obama administration on labor unions? Previously, David Madland and Shikha Dalmia debated the impact unions have on ailing U.S. automakers and whether the trend of declining union membership will reverse. Karla Walter is writing in Madland’s place today.

Obama owes unions, but how much will he give?
Point: Shikha Dalmia

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. No institution that ignores this dictum can maintain its integrity over the long run -- especially not unions, given their long history of corruption and abuse.


So the big question is: Will President Obama make unions more -- or less -- accountable?

In this past election alone, Big Labor spent upward of $500 million of its members’ dues to put Democrats in the White House and Congress. “You can make the case that Obama wouldn’t have won without the labor movement -- troops, money key states,” observed Jonathan Tasini, the executive director of the pro-union Labor Research Assn., shortly after the election. But the future health of the American labor movement will depend on whether Obama takes a maximalist or minimalist view of the political debt he owes to organized labor.

That he will do something is not in doubt. You can’t constantly say during the campaign that it is “time we had a president who didn’t choke saying the word ‘union’” and completely ignore unions once elected. And, arguably, Obama has already started the process of payoff. He has:

* Appointed as secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, a California congressman who was reelected four times thanks to labor backing won by voting with the AFL-CIO’s positions 97% of the time.

* Issued three pro-union executive orders in his first week in office, the chief one reversing a George W. Bush-era policy that allowed unionized companies to post signs informing workers that they can decertify their union.

* Installed Vice President Joe Biden as the head of a new task force to strengthen the middle class, something that would smack of government hubris if its chief purpose weren’t to keep Biden harmlessly occupied.

But all of this is small potatoes compared with what’s really on the union wish list. Broadly, this list consists of two sets of demands. The first includes the usual items, such as higher mandatory minimum-wage laws, more stringent labor standards among nations that trade with the U.S. and better unemployment benefits for laid-off workers. Some of these are sure-shot economy-busters that give short shrift to the needs of ordinary consumers, union claims about being the great champion of the American middle class notwithstanding. But at least they concern the interests of workers. Not so with the second set. Their sole purpose is to empower union bosses against their own rank and file.

For starters, Big Labor wants to turn the U.S. Department of Labor into its advocate, not overseer. To this end, it wants Obama to remove the disclosure requirements put in place by the previous administration that force it to give a detailed accounting of how it spends the dues it collects. But it is precisely these requirements that allowed The Times to reveal last year that the United Long-Term Care Workers, California’s largest union local, had puffed away nearly $10,000 at the Grand Havana Room, an expensive cigar lounge frequented by Hollywood celebrities.

Unions complain that these rules impose too much red tape. That complaint would have more credibility if they weren’t also spending vast portions of their war chest fighting right-to-work laws that would permit their own members to hold them accountable by withholding dues.

But the big prize that Big Labor is coveting is the misleadingly titled the Employee Free Choice Act. Far from giving workers choice, it would take away the right of workers to hold secret-ballot elections on whether they want to unionize; such balloting is a sacred pillar of democratic self-governance. This law would effectively mean that while labor bosses could form a union by simply getting a majority of workers to sign a card, workers would still be required to hold elections to decertify a union. This is a blatant double standard that would allow unions to sail into a workplace, start collecting mandatory dues -- and literally never have to worry about being booted out. Perhaps Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would want to run for union president.

Obama promised cleaner, more open government; he even signed the Reason Foundation’s Presidential Oath of Transparency during the campaign. But it will be hard to take him seriously if he absolves unions of the little accountability they currently have to practice.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation.

After Bush, an administration that puts workers first
Counterpoint: Karla Walter

Shikha, you are right: Obama’s union agenda will be responsive to the people who got him into the White House -- the voters. In these difficult economic times, there is no doubt that workers need the opportunity to join together and be represented in the workplace.

The Obama administration has already shown that it is serious about putting workers first. The first major piece of legislation Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which will enhance workers’ ability to pursue wage discrimination lawsuits. Days later, Obama announced the creation of a task force to address the strains on the middle class. .

By putting workers first during tough economic times, workers stand to prosper as our economy recovers. This means focusing on efforts to rebuild the middle class, supporting workers’ freedom to organize and ensuring that the Department of Labor -- the agency charged with protecting workers’ rights -- does its job.

While you choose discount the work of Joe Biden’s much-needed task force, Shikha, the vice president will be looking at issues that are essential to rebuilding economic security for America’s working families: protecting middle-class incomes, protecting workers’ retirement security, restoring labor standards (especially safety standards) and expanding workers’ lifelong training opportunities. It is tragic that the Bush administration treated these issues as peripheral while the inflation-adjusted median income of working-age families in the U.S. fell by about $2,000 between 2000 and 2007.

When he announced the task force’s creation, Obama said, “We know that you cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement.” Of course, this should include support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it harder for management to threaten workers seeking to join a union. Unions paved the way to the middle class for millions of workers and pioneered benefits along the way, including paid healthcare and pensions. Even today, union workers earn more and are more likely to receive benefits. Nevertheless, workers seeking to unionize are faced with arcane federal laws that let anti-union management harass employees and trump workers’ rights.

The Employee Free Choice Act would level the playing field by allowing workers to unionize a workplace once a majority of workers have signed a petition in favor of the change. Shikha, you seem to have a problem with this, but it is in fact very similar to the procedure by which corporations can get a union decertified. In 2007, the National Labor Relations Board found that an employer had legally withdrawn recognition of a union after receiving a petition signed by a majority of workers requesting a decertification election. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Also at the top of the agenda is restoring worker protections. For eight years, workers have had to bear the brunt of President Bush’s ideology of hands-off government and an ineffective Department of Labor. Consequently, employees too often face workplace dangers and are not able to collect wages owed to them. Law-abiding business owners have difficulty competing with scofflaw employers who can lower their costs by ignoring workplace rules.

Labor Secretary-designate Hilda Solis promises to be a strong supporter of workers’ rights and is committed to ensuring that workplaces are safe, healthy and fair. Her priorities include protecting workers from job discrimination and addressing the retirement-security crisis.

By appointing Solis to serve as Labor secretary and creating the task force on the middle class, , Obama has shown that his administration will put workers first and demonstrated that he will remain accountable to the working men and women who put him in the White House.

Karla Walter is a policy analyst with the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress.