News commentators routinely employed the words “transformative” and “historic” to describe the outcome of the presidential election this November 4. While Barack Obama’s race was the main reason for such words, there’s little question that the new president-elect intends to radically transform the relationship between major American institutions and government. Labor unions happen to be among those institutions. Throughout the campaign, the Illinois Democratic Senator made clear his view that American workers have been getting the short end of the stick and need a new social compact. Large Democratic majorities taking control of both houses of Congress this January will make the task of President Obama’s history-making a lot easier. And he plans to make up for lost time in a hurry.
Labor officials are savoring the possibilities. Union members in 2007 comprised only 12.1 percent of the U.S. work force and 7.5 percent of employees in the private sector, figures well down from a half-century and even 25 years ago. Obama’s labor initiatives almost guarantee unions a substantial long-run membership boost – and an accompanying windfall in dues. Union officials aren’t bashful about admitting that volunteers in their organizations were instrumental in putting Obama over the top. “People volunteered because they want a president who will fight for America’s working families,” said Gerald McEntee, president of the AFL-CIO-affiliated American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “In the critical battleground states, workers gave Sen. Obama the winning edge.” An estimated 250,000 AFL-CIO volunteers campaigned for Obama, focusing efforts on battleground states such as Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. And according to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than 90 percent of the estimated $52 million in AFL-CIO donations during the 2008 election cycle (as of mid October) went to Democratic candidates. Obama’s election provides an early return on that investment. Labor wants action over the next few months. Here is a rundown on what to expect from President Obama, aided by a Democratic-majority Congress:
Card Check. This is priority Number One. Obama has stated openly that he would sign a card-check bill as soon as it hits his desk. Formally (and deceptively) known as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), this measure would force any private-sector employer to accept a given union as a sole bargaining agent if it can secure signatures from at least 50 percent of all potentially affected workers indicating a willingness to join. Card checks long have been legal. Yet under current law, a card-check campaign must reach a 30-percent threshold in order to trigger a National Labor Relations Board-supervised secret-ballot election process. Under EFCA, a simple majority would supersede that process. Experience repeatedly has shown that unions use high-pressure tactics to persuade employees to sign cards. This legislation merely would increase the incentive to apply the pressure, legally or not. EFCA stalled in the Senate in 2007. Down to between 40 and 43 members (pending final tallies), GOP senators will have far less margin for breaking ranks. What’s at stake is the survival of workplace democracy.
Right to Work. Unions and their allies in Congress pull out the stops every time lawmakers introduce a bill designed to protect an individual worker’s right to withhold dues or agency fee payments without fearing the loss of his or her job. They’ve succeeded every time. Obama made opposition to the Right to Work part of his campaign platform. As it is, efforts to expand the number of states with Right to Work laws – there are presently 22 – have hit a roadblock, the latest being in Colorado. An Obama presidency would ensure those roadblocks remain.
Union Preference in Federal Contracting. Obama has indicated that he plans to repeal President Bush’s Executive Order 13202, which eliminated the requirement to hire union workers on construction projects involving federal contracts. Bush’s February 2001 “open-source” order itself had reversed a measure signed by his predecessor, Bill Clinton. The result of Obama’s stroke of the pen would be more work for unions – and higher costs for taxpayers.
Davis-Bacon Act Expansion. Passed by Congress in 1931, the Davis-Bacon Act mandates that federal contractors on projects of $2,500 or more must pay prevailing wages for that local labor market. In high union-membership industries, especially in non-Right-Work states, “prevailing” is another way of saying union-scale. Obama made expanding coverage part of his presidential campaign platform, especially hitting at the Bush administration’s decision to suspend Davis-Bacon requirements as a way of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Passage of the RESPECT Act. Organized labor in recent years has sought to reclassify workplace supervisors as “employees” so as to include them in the same bargaining unit as their subordinates. The vehicle is proposed federal legislation called the Re-Empowerment of Skilled and Professional Employees and Construction Tradesworkers Act, or more simply, RESPECT. This measure would amend the National Labor Relations Act so as to severely limit the definition of “supervisor.” Aside from raising labor costs, such action would invite very real conflicts of interest. Obama doesn’t see it that way; as a senator, he supported the RESPECT Act.
Forced Public-Employee Bargaining. Though not widely heralded, this is a major element on organized labor’s wish list. Leading Democrats in Congress have proposed legislation, the (misnamed) Public Safety Employee-Employer Cooperation Act, to force all 50 states and respective local jurisdictions to engage in binding arbitration and collective bargaining. The track record of existing state laws isn’t promising. As an extreme case, the City of Vallejo, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, this past May filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy because it couldn’t meet salary and benefit demands of police and fire employees, many of whom already were collecting generous overtime payments. Obama supports a federal override of states declining to go this route.
Teamster Oversight. For nearly 20 years, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has been a ward of the federal government, the result of decades of extreme corruption in conjunction with the criminal underworld. Since assuming office nearly a decade ago, current IBT General President James P. Hoffa has been aggressively campaigning to remove Independent Review Board oversight of his union. He argues that the age of Teamster-mob alliances is long over. He’s got Barack Obama’s sympathetic ear, who promised the union early on that he would end the monitoring. The Teamsters rewarded Obama with an endorsement. The union is expecting reciprocation. They’re likely to get it soon.
This is by no means a complete list. Looking toward the long term, labor officials also seek to: institute further increases in the federal minimum wage; oppose creation of Social Security savings accounts; oppose privatization of government functions at all levels; expand the jurisdiction of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; oppose any new free-trade agreements; and support the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (passed by the House in 2007), which would open the floodgates for sex-discrimination employee lawsuits. In every case, Obama has stood with the unions, if not through Senate votes, than through spoken or written public statements.
But strengthening the hand of organized labor may come at the expense of the overall economy, say critics. They argue that the raft of pro-union measures supported by the incoming Obama administration will shackle business from doing what it does best. “The day President Obama takes office, the bets are that he would inherit between a $750 billion and a $1 trillion annual deficit,” said Bruce Josten, executive vice president for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “You have to get the economy off its back and growing, not contracting; growing jobs, not shedding jobs.” Union leaders see an Obama White House, allied with a Democratic Congress, as a partner in promoting fair growth. The problem is that the unions may wind up growing at the expense of others. (Alliance for Workers Freedom, 10/08; Human Events, 10/17/08; Washington Post, 11/6/08; Boston Herald, 11/10/08; other sources).