THE BLOG

Is Obama Hanging Workers Out to Dry?

04/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Friday's headlines were triumphant: President Barack Obama won a "showdown" with Republican leaders, convincing them to release the holds they had placed on the confirmation of 27 nominees to federal agencies. But Craig Becker, Obama's nominee to the National Labor Relations Board, was not part of that deal. Mr. Becker's crime? He is a lawyer who represents the interests of union members in labor-management disputes.

Obama could fix this easily, by naming Becker to the labor board during the current congressional recess, a move that would allow Becker to serve on the NLRB for a year without Senate confirmation. President George W. Bush made seven recess appointments to the labor board, most of them anti-union lawyers whose careers were spent representing management in labor disputes. (The NLRB functions as an arbitrator of disputes between workers and their bosses.)

But Obama's part of the deal that bought those other 27 nominees the freedom to serve seems to be a promise not to make any recess appointments during the Presidents Day recess, regardless of the toll on American workers. Any time the Republicans scream about the purported threat that labor poses to the economy, national security or the free-market system (all lies, by the way), Obama folds.

Case in point: Erroll Southers, Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration, came under fire by Senate Republicans when he refused to promise that he would deny collective bargaining rights to TSA airport screeners -- one of the most abused workforces in the federal government. The abuses heaped upon screeners -- arbitrary firings, mandatory overtime, lack of proper equipment and training -- put the traveling public at risk.

If the workers had full union representation, they would be able to bargain for the tools and conditions they need to do their jobs properly. During the creation of TSA, I worked for the union the that organized them, the American Federation of Government Employees. I heard, first-hand, troubling tales from workers about a range of security risks posed to the public because of the screeners' lack of workplace protections. (While TSA screeners can belong to a union, the union essentially has no power to represent them in the workplace because they are barred by executive order from bargaining collectively.)

Yet, Sen. Jim DeMint, in placing a hold on Southers' nomination, made a specious case that somehow collective bargaining rights for screeners would imperil public safety. (Never mind that the first-responder heroes of the 911 attacks -- the firefighters, cops and EMTs who ran into the inferno of the World Trade Center -- were all union members.)

In the wake of the attempted bombing of a U.S. aircraft on Christmas Day, Obama could have easily and justifiably made a recess appointment of Southers, a highly qualified anti-terrorism expert. Certainly, the public at large would have taken little issue with him for doing so. Instead, Obama allowed DeMint to win that bogus argument, and Southers withdrew his nomination after receiving no support from the administration.

It was a stunning blow, not just to labor, but to Obama's own credibility. During the presidential campaign, Obama pledged AFGE President John Gage his support for collective bargaining rights for screeners. Southers was ditched for refusing to recant Obama's promise to the workforce he was poised to lead.

Even if you don't belong to a union, this matters to you more than you know. Whatever standards of workplace fairness have managed to survive since the anti-union onslaught begun under President Ronald Reagan continue to exist because unions have fought hard for them. Whether the Family Medical Leave Act or the simple requirement that you receive at least a half-hour for lunch, these standards were advanced by unions. When unions are disempowered, every worker suffers, be she a union member or not.

The war on Obama's labor nominees is far bigger than any one person named to any one position. It's about the public perception of unions, and the GOP's success at demonizing unions and their members. For the sake of the nation, it's a game they must not be allowed to win.

President Obama owes it to the American worker to make a recess appointment of Craig Becker -- and not just because Becker is a highly qualified nominee to a board that is currently hamstrung by vacancies, and unable to act. If Obama is truly on the side of the American worker, he must make this recess appointment to demonstrate his commitment to fairness in the workplace, and to assert the right of workers to organize. It's a universal human right, according to the United Nations declaration to which the U.S. is a signatory, and one by which the president has an obligation to stand.