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Forum Post: a Debate on Labor’s Role in 2012 Campaign - get the whole thing on democracynow

Posted 2 years ago on March 16, 2012, 6:56 a.m. EST by flip (7038)
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ARTHUR CHELIOTES: Look at the choices. We live in an alleged democracy, but basically we have two choices to make. And there is no doubt that Barack Obama is the better choice. And so, we have to—we live in this real world. It’s not a theoretical world. And we don’t have the luxury of standing on the sidelines. We have to engage. And given these choices, it is clearly for Barack Obama, for what he’s done, the appointments that he’s made, the difference he’s made to the National Labor Relations Board, the economic recovery, the $7.8 billion that he put into the Recovery Act. All of these things make it clear that, given the alternative that the Republicans are offering—I mean, they want a theocracy, it seems. It’s crazy. And so, we made the obvious choice.

MIKE ELK: Well, first, let me point out something. In my article, I quoted the president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, who was critical of the AFL-CIO’s very, very early endorsement of President Obama, about six months before the even Democratic National Convention. And just to give you an idea of how much organized labor doesn’t want this to be talked about, Donna Dewitt, the president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, was called by a top AFL-CIO official and reminded that the AFL-CIO funds her, and they don’t expect this kind of behavior. It was an implicit threat, because this is an embarrassing subject for organized labor to talk about.

You know, despite the talk of political independence that many in organized labor have been talking about for the last year, organized labor is still stuck in this Stockholm Syndrome of President Obama. Sure, it’s one thing to, you know, vote against Romney. It’s another to say, as Richard Trumka did, that Obama has been fighting aggressively for workers and unions. Let’s look at the last month alone. Obama has passed three very anti-worker measures. Let’s look at one. He passed an anti-union FAA bill, which, Arthur, your own president, Larry Cohen, described as making the rights of airline workers to unionize worse than it ever was. Union rights for airline workers are now worse than they were under Bush. And this is the only piece— LARRY COHEN: It means that, by statute, workers that are gone forever, 10 years, 20 years, it could be anything. Employer puts them on the list. You need a majority of the whole list, so you don’t even get an election. And the one provision, the one advancement since the 2008 elections that we have, the only advancement in the entire country, as we’re under attack every minute? That’s a rule. That’s not even in this statute. The leadership in the Senate didn’t even see fit to include in this gutting of the statute the rule that Delta is objecting to in the first place, the rule that says, oh, it’s a majority of those voting, not a majority of the whole electorate—if you can get to an election. So they’ve changed the rules to get to an election. You now need 50 percent of the so-called electorate. But our one little crumb of an advancement is left as a rule. So the day there’s ever a Republican president elected—and there’s now two Republicans and one Democrat—they’re going to strip the rule. The statue will remain. It’s worse than it’s ever been.

ARTHUR CHELIOTES: I was at that conference were Larry gave that speech, and we lobbied hard at the Congress to see if we could get the Senate to not make those changes. It was attached to the FAA funding bill, which would have crippled the FAA. And we tried to speak to our senators to have them understand how important this was, because it was Obama’s appointees to the National Mediation Board that changed the rule and said, no, it’s wrong that when you go to an election in a—under the Railway Labor Act, that you’re required to have a majority of all the workers in the organization, not just a majority of those voting. And they changed that. And the reaction of the industry was to work with the Republicans in the Senate and attach this to this important funding bill. And so, it was held hostage. And yes, the President had to make a decision: is this something worth shutting down the FAA over? And he made the decision to sign it. Difficult decision, but not for his lack of trying. The blame there rests clearly with the Senate. MIKE ELK: [inaudible] agree that that’s true. But here’s the issue. Why are we endorsing six months early? Look what happened at CWA after they endorsed. Obama signed a bill rolling back their organizing rights. That happened a few days after Obama—CWA endorsed Obama.

I think the issue here is we’ve got to be honest with our members. And I think sort of the glossing over that Richard Trumka and other leaders of the labor movement does really hurts the credibility of labor leaders. I mean, why should labor leaders stake their credibility on calling Obama a saint to their members, when Obama never stakes his credibility on labor leaders?

I mean, look at Obama. You know, look at—something happened during the CWA strike. Verizon was trying to cut the healthcare benefits of workers, and they were saying they had to do it because of Obamacare. Now, at the time, I talked to the White House, and I said, "Are you guys going to make a statement that this isn’t the intention of Obamacare, for private companies to use it to call for massive healthcare concessions?" And the White House wouldn’t say anything.

The President has never given a single major speech on the topic of improving collective bargaining rights in this country. Indeed, he’s given speeches like he did at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2009 blasting the rights of teachers’ unions. I mean, the only time in the recent State of the Union that President Obama mentioned unions was when he praised them for giving massive concessions, like the auto workers did or like the teachers’ unions did.

Sure, Obama might have created more jobs, but that’s a temporary band-aid. Unless we improve the ability of organized labor to collectively bargain, we’re never going to improve wages and really improve this economy. And President Obama, in my opinion, hasn’t done much, if anything, to help that, and, in many cases, has worked against workers’ rights to collectively bargain. I mean, here was a president who pledged that if workers’ rights were ever under threat, he would get on a picket line. He pledged that he would do this as president. But yet, when Honeywell workers were locked out last year in southern Illinois, President Obama flew to India with the CEO of Honeywell, while those workers were locked out, and never, despite me calling them dozens of times, ever made a statement about this incident.

ARTHUR CHELIOTES: I suppose you could say that. But then, if you look what was achievable, certainly the Employee Free Choice Act couldn’t get through Congress, and we took action there. We opposed some senators that had primaries coming up. They eventually lost to Republicans, unfortunately, which made it a tougher vote against labor on a whole host of other issues. So how do we deal with these things, in terms of the political realities of the nation we live in?

RICHARD TRUMKA: I think he made a strategic mistake when he confused job crisis with the deficit crisis a number of months ago, when he would talk about job creation and in the same sentence talk about deficit reduction, and people got the two confused. And he helped with that. And I think that was a strategic mistake. And he started playing on the Republican ground of deficit reduction. Look, we don’t have a short-term deficit crisis. It does not exist. We have a short-term jobs crisis. And if you fix the job crisis, the deficit crisis goes away.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Mike Elk, what about those comments of Richard Trumka? And also, the allegations by some folks that in the huge labor battle in Wisconsin, President Obama was MIA?

MIKE ELK: Yeah. Well, this is what I’m talking about. Organized labor leaders last year were saying, you know, pretty critical things of President Obama. Now Trumka turned around this week and said Obama has been fighting aggressively for workers’ rights, health and safety in their jobs. And now he comes back, and, you know, it really hurts the credibility of labor leaders with their members. And if you want, you know, members to fight for their unions, to potentially, in an organizing drive, risk getting fired or, in a strike, risk losing their home, you have to have credibility, you have to be honest with them. So I think it really hurts the credibility when labor leaders say one thing in an off election year and another thing in an election year.

About Wisconsin, now this is an interesting situation. AFSCME, the largest public employees union in the country, has pledged to spend $100 million re-electing President Obama. Yet, in the state of Wisconsin, you know, Wisconsin membership, since the Walker bill has taken effect, the amount of members contributing dues has dropped by almost two-thirds. But yet, in Wisconsin, they’re laying off organizers, when they need to be rehiring organizers. And instead, that money is being poured into re-electing President Obama. Now I think it’s a big, huge strategic mistake that President Obama has never made a single major speech on the issue of workers’ rights. Sure, he can’t pass workers’ rights provisions through the Senate. But like climate change and immigration, where he both gave major speeches, he could say something.

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