Late in his second term, President Barack Obama has finally started speaking forcefully about strengthening workers’ rights. Over the past two years, as Republicans have obstructed progress in Congress, the White House has issued a raft of executive orders — raising wages and establishing paid sick leave for federal employees and contract workers, barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for contractors and raising overtime pay for 5 million white-collar workers.
Also, he has sharpened his tone on the need for employee collective action to improve wages and working conditions. “The middle class itself was built on a union label,” he said in September at the White House Summit for Worker Voice, adding, “as union membership has fallen, inequality has risen.”
Unfortunately, Obama’s conversion may be a case of too little, too late. And this is part of a pattern.
Consistently, when Democratic presidents have come into office, they have placed workers’ rights low on their list of priorities — even when their electoral success owed much to the efforts of organized labor. This neglect has resulted in a situation in which U.S. labor law has become hopelessly outdated, employer abuses are rampant and the middle class has crumbled alongside declining union membership.
As the 2016 election cycle heats up, are any candidates willing to break this trend? Rather than treat workers’ rights as an afterthought, could the next Democratic president make it a real priority once in office?
A pattern of neglect
Democratic leaders have consistently failed to spend any serious political capital defending the right to organize.
Certainly this was true in the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson had the opportunity to roll back the proliferation of so-called right-to-work laws that undermined unions, especially in the South, by allowing workers to gain the benefits of union membership without paying their fair share of membership dues. In the 1964 elections and their aftermath, the AFL-CIO was a major organizational force behind the Johnson administration. Moreover, conditions on Capitol Hill were favorable. “For a generation, there had been no Congress as friendly to labor as the 89th,” wrote the historian Irving Bernstein.
Despite all this, Johnson delayed acting on labor law reform until the business lobby and Southern Democrats had successfully organized a filibuster. As political scientist Taylor Dark put it, “Johnson also seemed reluctant to use his famous powers of persuasion very forcefully.” Ultimately, the project of reforming labor law and outlawing right to work failed, and Johnson ignominiously left office without shoring up the right to organize.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter made similar overtures to organized labor but also failed to deliver. That year, the House of Representatives passed the Labor Law Reform Act, designed to speed up union elections and penalize companies that broke labor law. Yet his support for the measure was lukewarm, and he ultimately put labor’s goals on the back burner.
AFL-CIO President George Meany “asked Carter to schedule labor law as his first priority for the 1978 congressional session,” wrote historian Judith Stein. “The president, however, wanted to begin the Senate session with the controversial Panama Canal Treaty … Carter insisted, and the lengthy debates on the treaty gave business time to mobilize against labor reform.” Although a labor-law proposal passed the House 257-163, it died in another Senate filibuster.
Absent a shift in the balance of power in US workplaces, the gains from productivity increases in our economy will continue going to the wealthiest 1 percent rather than to the vast majority.
In 1992, Bill Clinton vowed on the campaign trail to ban the replacement of striking workers, a major union goal. Once in office, however, he failed to take serious action. He delegated labor law reform to a commission chaired by John Dunlop, a labor secretary under Richard Nixon. Even though Democrats held majorities in both houses of Congress, the Clinton administration failed to leverage the momentum his campaign gained from working people to modernize labor law.
True to the biases of the emergent New Democrats, Clinton appeared more concerned with the interests of Big Business than with workers’ rights. As journalist Louis Uchitelle explained in his 2006 book “The Disposable American,” each attempt by labor activists to push forward legal reforms “ran up against concern at the White House that the nation’s corporate executives would be angered at the intrusion on their autonomy and, in retaliation, would inflict political damage. So the administration backed off.”
Education is not enough
By the time Obama took office in 2009, a clear pattern had been established. Although the Democrats once again had control of both houses of Congress, he put passing the Employee Free Choice Act low on his list of priorities. By the time the Republicans took control of the House in 2011, the critical window for shoring up the right to organize passed.
It is only now, in the final year of his presidency, that he has begun showing real initiative in strengthening workers’ rights. His recent executive orders benefiting federal contractors are positive developments. But on the crucial issue of organizing, his policy proposals do little to facilitate employee action.
Over the course of this year, he has rolled out his agenda for “middle class economics for the 21st century,” as the White House put it. Rather than talk about organizing as key to defending the middle class, this agenda falls back on the neoliberal trope that what American workers need is more education, focusing on job skills and support for community colleges. In his speech announcing the details of his job-training proposal, Obama did not even mention unions.
Certainly, education and job training are good things. But absent a shift in the balance of power in U.S. workplaces, the gains from productivity increases in our economy will continue going to the wealthiest 1 percent rather than to the vast majority of us who are contributing to making the nation work.
Today, over half of the 20 fastest-growing occupations in the U.S. are low-paying jobs in the service sector. These include personal care aides, whose median pay was $19,910 in 2012. If these are the types of jobs on offer, more training and education will mean only more overqualified employees working poverty-level jobs.
During the period of America’s greatest industrial expansion, it was not preordained that jobs in steel, automobile manufacturing and trucking would pay a living wage that could support middle-class families. It took unions to ensure that employees received their fair share of the benefits of a growing economy.
We need a similar effort today to make sure that all jobs, particularly those in the fastest-growing sectors, allow workers to lead dignified lives and support their families. Even at higher skill levels, collective action is needed to make sure that better-paying jobs are not outsourced or undermined.
All of those concerned with economic justice and growing inequality — whether or not they are members of traditional unions — must demand that presidential hopefuls do more than issue proposals for job training and education. Instead, they need to commit to putting workers’ rights at the top of their agenda.