01/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Opens the Door, Will Labor Go Through It?

This week demonstrated for all to see two directions for organized labor in the Obama era. You can support laid off workers occupying the factories of their former employers, or you can focus on cutting backroom deals with corrupt politicians.

I know, it's a tough call. Let's see. At best, the backroom deal route lands you on the front page in a very embarrassing light; at worst, you end up maybe in jail.

Occupying a factories, on the other hand, actually wins real stuff for people who are facing a very hard time. They might not have jobs, but at least they got what they were owed. Hooray! But that is trivial compared with what might be won if labor focused more generally on things like mobilizing workers to occupy factories instead of schmoozing the halls of power.

The plain truth is that the economic policies the Obama administration will actually implement will have far less to do with who gets appointed to what post than with whether there is a movement demanding economic justice from whoever's hand is on the policy lever. On the one hand, the people labor would like to see in positions of power will need pushing just as much as anyone from the other sectors of Obama's coalition. On the other hand, the "centrists" Obama has been naming are particularly vulnerable to being pushed right now. Given the scale of the crisis, they themselves are unsure of what to do, and this uncertainty will open doors for workers that would otherwise be closed. Just as importantly, the forces on the other side of the equation are so weak. Big capital is just as unsure of what to do as the technocrats in the center, and anyway corporate power has so little credibility at the moment it hardly matters what they think. Witness the big three automakers being rebuffed by the Republican minority in the Senate.

The centrist who should be pushed more than anyone is Barack Obama himself. And what is most promising of all, it seems that this view is shared by the President-elect himself. Speaking last Sunday of the factory occupation, Obama said,"When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned, I think they are absolutely right. What's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy."

Say what? Did we just hear the President-Elect of the United States encouraging workers to occupy factories in defense of their rights?

Just to make sure we got this right, here is the rest of the statement:

When you have a financial system that is shaky, credit contracts. Businesses large and small start cutting back on their plants and equipment and their workforces. That's why it's so important for us to maintain a strong financial system. But it's also important for us to make sure that the plans and programs that we design aren't just targeted at maintaining the solvency of banks, but they are designed to get money out the doors and to help people on Main Street. So, number one, I think that these workers, if they have earned their benefits and their pay, then these companies need to follow through on those commitments.

Number two, I think it is important for us to make sure that, moving forward, any economic plan we put in place helps businesses to meet payroll so we are not seeing these kinds of circumstances again. Have we done everything that we can to make sure credit is flowing to businesses and to families, and to students who are trying to get loans? And to homeowners who have been making payments on their homes but are still finding their property values so depressed that it becomes very difficult for them to make the mortgage payments?

That's where the rubber hits the road and that's going to be the central focus of my administration.

So, here we have big capital in complete retreat, a bunch of liberal technocrats coming into power, and their incoming boss aligning himself with workers engaged in direct action on the job site. This is not an alignment of forces I expected to see in this country in my lifetime.

The weak link in the chain, by far, is not Obama's much-criticized appointments, but rather the degree of labor mobilization at the base. Obama has essentially invited American workers to come out of the political cold and step into the sunshine. Are their leaders going to accept, or will the keep hanging out in the shadows of power, peddling their economic clout like a bail bond agent?