DETROIT – Barack Obama’s Labor Day visit to the Motor City – a presidential tradition from a generation ago which seems to have been mostly forgotten in recent decades – comes during a period in his term of office when the president and organized labor might benefit from spending some time together.
The president has his doubters and critics – many on the right would say the only thing he has done right is to kill Osama bin Laden. But many of his critics also come from within the ranks of unions.
The president has been accused of not standing up for organized labor, criticized for supporting big banks in lieu of the little homeowner and taxpayer, attacked for not standing up to Republicans on health care or on raising the debt ceiling, and focusing on everything except improving the nation’s employment situation.
But despite the detractors, organized labor leaders see a less-than-helpful Obama as easily a better choice for president than any candidate in the Republican field.
In an interview last month with the Huffington Post, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the labor federation would continue to support the president. “Barack Obama’s a friend,” Trumka said, “and when you place him in the context of those who are running against him right now, he is a giant.”
Organized labor, and specifically the building trades unions, aren’t exactly enamored with the entire Democratic Party, either (see related story).
“After two years of feeling burned by a president who repeatedly sought Republican votes – with little success – a coalition led by labor unions, MoveOn and the Campaign for America’s Future is urging Obama to ditch his ‘jobs-lite’ agenda,” said an Aug. 30 Politico article. “They want him to go for the domestic equivalent of shock-and-awe – a stimulus bill with hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending on veterans and youth jobs programs, infrastructure, mortgage assistance and direct aid to states.”
Teamsters President James Hoffa said on NBC’s Meet the Press: “(The President) is gonna have to get a jobs program that is big, bold, and come with it and he’s gotta sell it and get it out to the people. We really need a program that’s gonna be roads, jobs, dams, and start rebuilding America.”
Whatever plan Obama puts out won’t pass the Republican majority in the House.
“Even though (Obama) knows Republicans will not allow it to pass Congress, this is a debate that will be settled only by the election, and he needs to go into the election telling the truth about what it will take to get out of this perpetual high-unemployment rut that we’re in now,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive strategy group, to Politico.
Obama is dealing with an openly hostile Republican caucus in Congress, and he did inherit an economic mess when he took office. But he hasn’t exactly been out front, in the face of Republicans, advocating for jobs or the other needs of working people.
Building trades leaders, like most of organized labor, have been restrained in their criticism of the president. Obama, wrote AFL-CIO Building Trades Department President Sean McGarvey, “has sincerely tried to claim the mantle of ‘adult leadership.’ He was dealt a terrible hand upon taking office and has tried to address serious problems in a serious manner. But he, too, has shown a troubling lack of urgency when it comes to the day to day problems that afflict the American middle class; especially our enduring jobs crisis.”
Many organized labor leaders are still seething that the president didn’t go to the mat for the nation’s workers and press harder for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for American workers to become union members.
And that’s just the start. Until now, the president and his bully pulpit have been nearly silent on something that’s crystal clear to the nation’s 13.9 million unemployed: there has been no national jobs plan or policy. The Tea Party represents a small fraction of the nation’s voters, but for the last two years, they have been driving the national agenda, and moving lawmakers away from debate over job creation in favor of debate over the debt ceiling and deficit reduction.
“I think the President made a strategic mistake when he abandoned talking about the jobs crisis and job creation and focused completely on the politically manufactured debt crisis,” Trumka said when asked for a review of the Obama administration’s economic record. “You have one very obvious way to make a dent in the deficit crisis, which is to get people back to work.”
There are strong indications that the president is getting the hint. The president has promised to put forward a major jobs strategy during a speech on Sept. 8 – and the construction industry would seem to be a major beneficiary. Obama has been talking about taking steps to improve employment through higher expenditures on infrastructure, retrofitting commercial buildings to make them more energy efficient, providing tax incentives to hiring workers, and cutting payroll taxes paid by employers.
“Will he commit all his energy to offering bold solutions, or will he continue to work with the Tea Party?” Trumka said Aug. 25 at a breakfast with reporters. At a meeting last month with Obama, Trumka said he urged the president to “propose what is necessary” in his job creation proposal, and “not what is possible.”
“If he falls into nibbling around the edges, history will judge him, and working people will judge him,” Trumka said. “He has to focus all of his energy on bold solutions to the job crisis.”