"There's a bully pulpit there that the president has, and it needs to be used, I don't think you can turn the cheek on this one." -- Rep. Raul Grijalva (D., Ariz.), a co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus.
Forbes is calling this "the final battle in the war against unions." It is no longer just a Wisconsin battle, but a national one. However, it appears that President Obama has chosen to remain on the sidelines, politically triangulating but saying little Thursday's Wall Street Journal reports:
"President Barack Obama, after initially lending his support to organized labor, has stepped back from the fights spreading in state capitals from Wisconsin to Tennessee, leaving union officials divided about his tactics.'"
Teacher unions in particular are currently resisting a nationally coordinated attack by a group of Republican and Tea Party governors who are backed up by conservative billionaires like the Koch brothers. They've made it clear that no compromise is possible and that they want nothing less than the end of unions and collective bargaining. Teachers and thousands of other union members are hitting the streets this week in state capitals across the country, hoping that the protests that began in Madison, Wisconsin (or was it in Cairo's Tahrir Square?) will have national consequences.
With 75,000 Wisconsin workers surrounding the state capitol last week, the president cautiously expressed concern. He told TV station WTMU in Milwaukee:
"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin where you're just making it harder for collective bargaining, generally seems like more of an assault on unions."
On February 16, Education Secretary Arne Duncan echoed Obama's tepid support for teachers,
"Governors across the country are facing, you know, tough budget issues -- as the president is here -- but we have to support our hardworking teachers and make sure that we do everything we can to help them do the critically important work they do every single day in the classroom," Duncan said. He called for compromise on both sides.
"Teachers unions have to move, management has to move, school boards have to move, our Department of Education has to move," said Duncan initially. But after the union concessions were rejected out of hand by Wisconsin's Governor Walker, Duncan, like the President, went into a shell.
Even as 14 of his own party's state legislators were risking arrest by leaving the state and boycotting the vote on the union-busting bill, the President and top Democratic party leaders remained silent.
President Obama came to Ohio this week, where thousands of union workers were protesting Governor John Kasich's union-busting legislation. In Cleveland, Obama gave a long speech about helping business and encouraging "innovation," but said not a word about the big protest demonstrations that were going on over in Columbus at the same time.
The White House has put out the word that the President and his ed secretary are fearful about intervening in Wisconsin's "internal politics." But up to this point, Obama hadn't been at all shy about jumping in and taking sides in local political battles involving teachers and their unions. He threw caution to the wind when he endorsed the mass teacher firings in Central Falls, Rhode Island last February. He had no compunction about lending support to Rahm Emanuel's mayoral campaign in Chicago. And Duncan played an active role in support of Michelle Rhee's war on the D.C. teachers union, even hitting the streets to back the election campaign of then incumbent mayor and Rhee supporter, Adrian Fenty.
All this shows how much things have changed since the days of December, 2008, when then president-elect Obama thrilled and offered hope to his political base by coming out strongly in support of Chicago workers at Republic Window and Door who had seized their own factory to keep it from moving out of state.
In a Twitter post last week, educator/author Diane Ravitch asked, "Why were Obama/Duncan quick to applaud firings in Central Falls, but afraid to speak up for Wisconsin teachers?" Good question.
A new Gallup poll shows that 61 percent of Americans support collective bargaining rights. And many of the current protests are in politically important swing states, such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. But the White House most likely figures that a mobilized union movement is sure to back Obama in 2012, even without him voicing support for the current struggle. We'll see.
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