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How Obama Suddenly Became Pro-Worker

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OBAMA THUMB
US President Barack Obama gives the thumbs up as he walks out of the White House in Washington on October 7, 2012 before departing for a campaign swing in California. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages) | NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- In May 2013, low-wage workers in federal buildings in Washington began walking off the job in a series of one-day strikes. Employed by concessionaires and janitorial contractors at places like the Smithsonian and the Ronald Reagan Building, the workers said their rock-bottom wages weren't enough to survive on. Like the Walmart and fast-food workers also going on strike, they asked for better working conditions and a greater share of the spoils.

Calling themselves Good Jobs Nation, and backed by the Change to Win union federation, the workers crystallized their grievances into a clear policy demand: A higher minimum wage for workers employed under federal contracts. They enlisted members of Congress -- most notably Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus -- to pressure President Barack Obama on the issue. And Demos, a progressive think tank, put together a series of reports making the case for presidential executive action.

In January, the workers' demand ended up on the largest of possible stages: The president's State of the Union address. Kicking off what he deemed a "year of action," Obama announced that by executive order he would set a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour for workers under federal contracts, a move he urged Congress to follow with a raise to the federal minimum wage.

The announcement was a clear response to a coordinated campaign by a group of progressive allies, including minimum wage workers, and it augured similar executive actions to follow.

"This outside agitation has really helped push the president to do the right thing," Paco Fabian, a spokesman for Change to Win, which includes the Service Employees International Union, said recently. "And he certainly deserves credit. For the first time in a long time we have a president taking executive action to help workers."

The contractor minimum wage was just one in a slew of liberal workplace reforms Obama has undertaken unilaterally in recent months. He directed the Labor Department to make more workers eligible for overtime pay. He expanded minimum wage protections to cover previously excluded home care workers. He signed an executive order barring discrimination against LGBT workers by federal contractors.

And just two weeks ago, he signed another executive order that will force contractors to self-report labor law violations and will bar many of them from receiving federal dollars. One of the order's specific aims is to discourage wage theft.

Most of these proposals are relatively limited, applying only to workers whose pay is funded by taxpayers, rather than all U.S. workers. And in their nature as executive rules and actions, they can be easily undone by a future president with the stroke of a pen.

But for the progressives who've agitated for these policies -- in many cases going back years -- the reforms are meaningful and can help set higher standards for private employers.

"If you put these policies together, they have the potential to reach millions of working people," said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who was previously the chief economist for Vice President Joe Biden.

During Obama's first term, Bernstein directed the White House's Middle Class Task Force, which was created soon after the president took office, in part at the behest of labor unions. The task force was meant to develop just the sort of reforms that Obama has recently put into action.

But by Bernstein's own admission, the task force led to few tangible policy changes early in Obama's recession-hobbled tenure.

"You only have so much bandwidth when you're an administration," Bernstein said. "We were dealing with a pretty cataclysmic recession, and health care reform absorbs lots of time and energy and personnel. I think that once the economic recovery is more solidly underway you can turn a little bit more to job quality over just quantity."

According to David Madland, director of the worker project at the Center for American Progress, or CAP, the executive actions are an obvious response to both congressional gridlock and the national discussion surrounding income inequality. Like Bernstein, Madland said he'd much rather see such reforms made into law through comprehensive legislation. But he said even the contractor rules are "still potentially getting at one in five workers in the workforce."

"You clearly have an increasingly intransigent Congress thats blocking any sort of action, so the president, if he wants to reduce inequality and boost wages, he's got no choice but to do things on his own and through executive powers," Madland said. "You also have, at the same time, a growing realization that these efforts are part of how you rebuild the economy."

CAP, highly influential in Democratic politics, had been urging the administration to enact the recent executive order on contractor compliance.

Trade groups and many Republicans have denounced Obama's actions on contracting, saying compliance will raise costs on employers and fuel more lawsuits. Some of the reforms have long and complicated histories that don't bode well for their longevity.

For instance, the president's compliance order had a previous iteration with the Clinton White House, which, at the urging of liberal groups, had tried to tie federal contracts to firms' adherence to labor and environmental standards. Clinton implemented the reforms in the final days of his presidency, only to see the administration of George W. Bush quickly revoke them.

Similarly, Obama's proposal to expand labor law to qualify more workers for overtime pay would merely override a move by the Bush administration that limited eligibility. The Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank that's advocated for new overtime guidelines for years, has called the updated rule "an important first step" to addressing stagnant wages. Yet a subsequent administration would have the ability to reverse the rule once again.

But a future president probably wouldn't do so with much public support, said Bill Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO labor federation. At a time when low-wage worker strikes are making national news, Americans may be more likely to embrace reforms seen as beneficial to workers on the bottom of the economic ladder, like a higher minimum wage or expanded overtime pay.

"I think this lines up very well with where the public is these days," Samuel said. "They're facing economic challenges and time pressures, and these [actions] are meant to address those. I don't think Republicans will get any traction if they want to roll these back. These ideas are going to take hold."

With a few months left in this so-called year of action, progressive worker advocates say there are other steps Obama should take. CAP's Madland, for instance, would like to see executive action requiring greater disclosure of 401(k) fees. And Change to Win's Fabian said his group would like to see the executive branch implement "labor peace" agreements, which have become common on the city and state level and make it easier for workers to unionize.

"These are certainly steps in the right direction," Fabian said of the executive orders already on the books, "but there's a lot more he could do."

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