Dick Meister: Labor’s White House friend

Pub date May 10, 2009
SectionBruce Blog

President Barack Obama brings new hope to America’s working families, says AFL-CIO president John Sweeney

By Dick Meister

(Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based journalist, has been covering labor and politics for more than half a century.)

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

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

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rescinded some of the most damaging of the anti-worker executive orders that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

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,