I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem, to me it's part of the solution.
-- President Barack Obama, January 30, 2009
The great union leader John L. Lewis, who headed the United Mine Workers from the '30s through the '50s and helped organize millions of workers into the CIO, used to declare in organizing drives: "President Roosevelt wants you to join the union." Roosevelt never said that in so many words, but FDR did strongly back the Wagner Act, giving workers the clear right to organize.
During World War II, Roosevelt's War Labor Board made clear that corporations seeking war contracts needed to have good labor relations. In practice, that meant unions; and it meant "pattern bargaining" in which workers for different companies in the same industry got the same wages, so that companies could not play workers off against each other.
Roosevelt's wartime contracting policies, the Wagner Act, and the militancy of the labor movement laid the groundwork for the golden age of American unions during the postwar boom. Not coincidentally, this was also the one period in the past century when the economy became more equal, and more secure for working people.
So, while Roosevelt's words never quite urged workers to join unions, his deeds spoke volumes. John L. Lewis was well within the bounds of poetic license.
On Friday, President Obama, a onetime organizer, had more words to say about unions, and they were the kind of explicit endorsement that we literally haven't heard from a president since FDR's day.
"We need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests, because we know that you cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement," the President said. "When workers are prospering, they buy products that make businesses prosper. We can be competitive and lean and mean and still create a situation where workers are thriving in this country."
And Obama offered deeds to match. This stunning declaration of support came at the White House announcement of a Task Force on Middle Class Working Families headed by Vice President Biden, with Jared Bernstein as its executive director. The idea was proposed last summer by Change to Win unions, who endorsed candidate Obama early in the primary season. He embraced the concept, and it was a commitment he kept. His remarks and actions were a dazzling example of the transformative power of a president to shift public opinion and the political center of gravity.
The task force, and the effusive and genuine embrace of the labor movement, came as a huge relief to union leaders, who have watched anxiously as nearly all the key economic posts went to centrist veterans of the Clinton administration, and the job of secretary of labor was not announced with the other senior economic officials. As it turned out, the appointment of Hilda Solis, a very pro-union member of Congress, was delayed because others had turned down the job first, but the delay sent an unfortunate signal.
Labor activists have also been worried about whether Obama will keep his pledge not just to sign the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) guaranteeing the right to join a union, but to work hard on its behalf with legislators, especially in the Senate. Since the election, the US Chamber of Commerce and allied anti-union business organizations have mounted a furious publicity and lobbying offensive with one message: Mr. President, you don't need this bruising fight right now.
But the Chamber's allies in the Republican House Caucus have beautifully undercut that logic. The Chamber's premise was that EFCA would be highly divisive, at a time then the new president was seeking unity. With the wall-to-wall Republican stonewalling on the Obama recovery package, that premise is up in smoke. And the Chamber's other allies, on Wall Street, have also done a service by inviting some salutary class warfare. Obama responded last week, calling Wall Street bonuses in the face of government bailouts "shameful," and seems to genuinely view the growth of unions as a necessary counterweight.
The task force itself will be a welcome counterweight to the outsized influence of Wall Street inside the Obama administration. Several weeks ago, Jared Bernstein, then a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, wrote a joint op-ed piece for the New York Timeswith Robert Rubin pointing out where they agreed. One issue where they pointedly disagreed was on the Employee Free Choice Act, which Rubin explicitly refused to endorse. The Biden operation now looks to be the go-to place for progressives seeing access to Obama's priorities. The Task Force will serve as the White House center to review all proposals, legislative and administrative, for their impact on the effort to raise wages and rebuild a middle class.
Without Obama's strong personal engagement, EFCA will be anything but a legislative cakewalk. Democrats may have a working majority. But at least five business-oriented Democrats are not considered certain votes for EFCA, and Obama will need to let them know that the White House considers this bill a top priority.
Our last two Democrats went out of their way not to get close to organized labor. Jimmy Carter did not lift a finger when the last big push to put some teeth back in the Wagner Act's right to unionize went down to defeat by just two votes in the Senate in 1978.
On Friday, announcing the Task Force, Obama signed three executive orders. One will prevent federal contractors from discouraging their employees to join unions. Another will assure that workers keep their jobs when a contract changes hands. Down the road is an executive order to promote project agreements on construction contracts.
If Obama is serious, he can take a leaf from FDR's book, and use government's extensive contracting power to actively promote unions. Late in the Clinton administration, then Vice President Al Gore led an effort called the Responsible Contractor Initiative. The idea was to reward federal contractors who took the high road by providing good jobs and not standing in the way of unions.
It remains to be seen just how much real power Obama will give Vice President Biden. But the task force is a superb beginning. If government can just use its influence to make sure employers stay neutral, it will be a new day for the labor movement--and for American progressivism.
Robert Kuttner is Co-Editor of The American Prospect. His new book is "Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency."