Union officials, activists and labor movement allies gathered at the White House on Wednesday for what Barack Obama’s administration heralded as a landmark summit on the future of work. The president’s stated aim: to determine how American labor relations should evolve in the face of a changing economy.
“We’re here today to think about where do we go next,” he said at the White House Summit on Worker Voice. “What does the next generation of American jobs look like? How do we make sure those jobs reward hard work?”
The Obama administration has become more aggressive during his second term in wielding its executive authority on behalf of labor unions. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been particularly active, delivering a string of labor-friendly rulings and policy announcements over the past two years.
But the White House’s pivot toward unionism has not mollified some of its critics in organized labor, who feel they were ignored during his first term. Also, labor leaders are incensed by the president’s embrace of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal they believe will cause relatively high-wage American jobs to move overseas.
The TPP deal was finalized Monday, making for awkward timing with the Worker Voice summit. One labor leader, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers President Greg Junemann, declined to attend the summit because of his anger over the pact.
But labor leader attendance at the summit was nonetheless healthy; guests included Richard Trumka, the president of the labor federation AFL-CIO, and Lee Saunders, the president of the government employee union AFSCME. And Obama said during his speech that he was eager to hear proposals for how such labor organizations could be bolstered.
“We should be making it easier, not harder, to join a union,” said Obama. “We should be strengthening our labor laws.”
Summit attendees presented a handful of proposals for doing just that. The left-leaning Roosevelt Institute issued a proposed Blueprint to Empower Workers for Shared Prosperity, timed to coincide with the day of the summit, that would include some major changes for how unions are formed in the United States.
For example, institute researchers suggested that labor law be adjusted to redefine “employer” and allow a single union to bargain with multiple employers on behalf of its members. The NLRB took a modest step in that direction in August when it expanded its joint employer legal standard so that corporations may be held liable for working conditions at businesses with which they share franchising agreements.
The Roosevelt Institute also suggested that labor law be expanded to encourage the creation of members-only unions, which represent only a small core of members in a larger workplace. Another labor-friendly think tank, the Century Foundation, recently issued a separate report calling for similar reforms and suggesting that unions could employ members-only unionism “both as a path to majority and as a beachhead in hostile parts of the country.”