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Friends Without Benefits: Obama's Betrayal of Labor

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It's now a bit embarrassing to admit, but organized labor actually had high hopes for Barack Obama. And it wasn't only because of the money. It wasn't only because labor, in 2008, had contributed a reported $400 million to the Democratic Party and naturally expected, quid pro quo, to get something meaningful in return. No, it was more than the money. Organized labor honestly thought this exciting, liberal hipster from Chicago was the answer.

But unfortunately, the man who said, "Politics didn't lead me to working folks; working folks led me to politics," hasn't done much to help working folks. While Obama freely acknowledges the legitimacy of organized labor, he has never demonstrated a genuine belief in the righteousness of the labor movement -- and in labor's view, a belief in the moral primacy of working people is not only a logical starting point, it's a necessary prerequisite. Alas, the only thing Obama has demonstrated is that he can't be trusted.

Take the EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act), for instance. This legislation would have given workers the right to join a union without having to navigate the treacherous waters of management hate-campaigns or long, drawn-out NLRB elections. With the EFCA they could join simply by signing cards ("card check"). If a majority said they wished to belong to a union, presto! -- they were union members -- which is more or less how they do it in Europe and Canada. Only in these United States is joining a union nearly as complicated as becoming a citizen.

In addition to the simple majority vote there were two other key provisions included in the bill: (1) increased penalties for management personnel found guilty of discriminating against employees engaged in union activism, and (2) the stipulation that if agreement on a contract couldn't be reached within 120 days, binding arbitration would set the terms.

What most people don't realize is that even after a successful union certification drive, things don't automatically proceed smoothly. Even after a union legally wins the right to represent the workers, many companies refuse to take "yes" for an answer. Seeking to sabotage the collective bargaining process, management does everything it can to avoid reaching agreement on a contract.

Some inaugural bargains have been known to limp along for as long as a year or more, with no resolution. It's management's hope that these stalling tactics will spook or frustrate the members to the point where they reconsider their union vote, and request to decertify. Odd as that sounds, it happens. A newly formed union membership can be very skittish. The 120-day deadline would prevent that.

While Obama did acknowledge his nominal support of EFCA, he did it flatly, mechanically, coming off more like an actuary than a champion of a cause. Instead of going on national television and presenting the EFCA inspirationally, introducing it as a monument to worker empowerment, Obama handed the baton to chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and told him to run with it.

And from the moment Emanuel got involved it became politics as usual. Not only did Emanuel instantly begin offering concessions to Republicans (thus exposing the White House's lack of commitment), he alienated labor by condescending to it, reminding the unions that if they didn't appreciate what the Democrats were doing for them they could try their luck with the Republicans.

Predictably, with Obama conspicuously silent, and no one to lead the charge, the legislation, even in its weakened, watered-down form, died a natural death. By the time Senator Feinstein (D-CA) got around to announcing she had changed her mind and wouldn't be voting for it, the bill was already as good as dead.

Organized labor was furious. The EFCA was viewed by many as the most significant labor initiative since the Taft-Hartley Act. If Obama had only done what he promised -- had he set the national agenda and made EFCA part of the public debate -- this legislation could have grown legs. Instead, Obama's actions clearly indicated that it mattered little to him, that he was merely going through the motions, largely to placate labor. (Sorry, boys....at least we tried..)

The same betrayal was evident in the president's shocking non-response to the attacks on America's public school teachers being made by anti-union forces and free-market fundamentalists. Although virtually every study ever conducted by reputable educational professionals has shown that the defects plaguing our school system are not the fault of the teachers, Obama remained mute.

To his utter shame, Obama never once contradicted these slanderous, trumped-up accusations, which he could have easily refuted simply by citing the relevant statistics -- statistics he had access to. Instead, Obama sought to curry favor with Republicans and Independents by appointing the anti-union, platitude-spouting bureaucrat Arne Duncan (a former Chicago crony) Secretary of Education.

The only "studies" that blame teachers are the phony ones, the ones sponsored by Republican business groups whose goal is to replace public schools with private charters, because there's money to be made. They want to privatize everything -- they want private police forces, armies, schools, beaches, toll roads, national parks, pay-as-you-go libraries, you name it. Were it not for the outrage it would cause among evangelicals, they would privatize the churches, franchise them like multiplex theaters, and charge admission.

Accordingly, their first order of business was to demonize organized labor, claiming that our public schools were failing because so many "bad teachers" were being protected by the teachers' union. And without anyone in authority to step up and refute those accusations -- with the President of the United States unwilling to set the record straight -- the lies morphed into sound-bites, and these sound-bites became part of the national consciousness.

Yet if anyone had taken two minutes to examine the statistics, they would have found that non-union teachers across the country get fired at about the same rate as union teachers. It's a fact. Also, they would have found that many of the states with a preponderance of union teachers (Oregon, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Connecticut, Vermont, Washington, Minnesota, Maine, et al) happen to have excellent public schools, some of the finest in the country.

Oregon and Washington's public school teachers are 100% unionized. Wisconsin and Connecticut's are 98% unionized. In other words, the knock against public school teachers and the unions that represent them was all part of a well-planned, well-orchestrated smear campaign.

By refusing to defend the public schools against these subversive attacks, Obama contributed to what we see today as an assault not only on school teachers, but on all our public sector unions. If President Obama had been even half the friend to labor that Candidate Obama was, America's unions wouldn't be in the defensive position they are today. It's been a dreadful first term.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net.

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