Dick Meister: Obama, labor, and FDR

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Obama is well on his way to becoming the most pro-labor president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt

By Dick Meister

(Dick Meister, former San Francisco Chronicle labor editor and labor reporter for KQED's TV's "Newsroom," has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a author, reporter, editor, and commentator.)

It¹s clear that Barack Obama is well on the way to becoming the most pro-labor president since Franklin D. Roosevelt - clear that he's firmly committed to strengthening the vital union rights that FDR secured for U.S.
workers seven decades ago.

Consider Obama's address to the AFL-CIO's national convention in Pittsburgh on Sept. 15. Yes, the president was speaking to a friendly audience, saying what the convention delegates wanted him to say and promising them what they wanted him to promise. But his were not empty words.

There's no doubt Obama meant it when he declared that "when organized labor succeeds, that's when our middle class succeeds. And when our middle class succeeds, that's when the United States of America succeeds... We'll grow our middle class by building a strong labor movement."

You need look no further for proof of Obama's firm commitment to labor than his appointing, as secretary of labor, former Congresswoman Hilda Solis, an exceptionally strong advocate of working people and their unions.

Solis has already taken decisive steps to tighten enforcement of the job safety laws that were all but ignored during the anti-labor Bush presidency, despite the great number of preventable on-the-job injuries and deaths. Solis also has tightened enforcement of the laws guaranteeing union rights that Bush's appointees neglected.

The Solis appointment is but one of several significant actions Obama has taken to back his words of strong support for organized labor. His economic recovery plans, for example, have given badly needed tax breaks to many working people and have extended unemployment insurance benefits to millions of workers who've been hit hard by the economic downturn.

As Obama told AFL-CIO delegates, his administration is "putting Americans to work across this country rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges and waterways with the largest investment in our infrastructure since Eisenhower
created the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s."

The workers are promised pay matching the prevailing wage for other construction workers in their area, which generally means a union wage. And Obama has issued executive orders reversing Bush orders that backed moves by federal contractors to curtail their employees exercise of union rights.

Labor and Obama agree that the health care system needs drastic reforming, but are far from agreeing on details. The president, of course, has sent out mixed and often confusing messages on what he wants done ­ but so has labor.

The AFL-CIO delegates adopted a resolution citing a single-payer system as the best way to guarantee health care to everyone. Their leaders, however, have indicated they'd be willing to settle for less, as long as the reformed
system included a government-run insurance plan, or public option.

What labor wants more than health care reform, wants more by far than anything else, however, is the long- sought Employee Free Choice Act. For it would open the way to significant expansion of the labor movement by denying employers the underhanded tactics they've used to block millions of workers from unionizing.

The act, which has been stalled in Congress for several years, would restore to workers the unfettered right to unionization originally guaranteed them 75 years ago by the Roosevelt-sponsored National Labor Relations Act.

Many employers openly intimidate those who support or attempt to organize unions. They order supervisors to spy on organizers and threaten pro-union workers with firing or other penalties, for instance.

Even the relative few employers who recognize a union as their employees' representative often refuse to bargain with the union on a contract and discipline employees who protest.

The Free Choice Act would impose stiff fines for such violations of the law and mandate that employers who stall in contract negotiations will have the terms dictated by an arbitrator.

The key provision would automatically grant union recognition on the showing of union cards by a majority of an employer's workers, rather than holding an election, as is now done in most cases. The law was like that originally,
with no lengthy election campaigns and thus much less opportunity for employers to intimidate workers.

Supporters of the act, including some labor leaders, are suggesting that in order to finally pass it, they might agree to a compromise that would call for an election rather than card check if a majority of workers petitioned for one. But it would require that the election be held within a few days after the petition was filed, in contrast to what's done now. Currently, union campaigns frequently last for months, giving employers plenty of time to persuade workers to vote against unionizing.

There's no doubt Obama would support the act in its original form or a compromise version. It's simple, he told the AFL-CIO: "I stand behind the Employee Free Choice Act ­ because if a majority of workers want a union, they should get a union."

FDR couldn't have said it better.

Dick Meister, former San Francisco Chronicle labor editor and labor reporter for KQED's TV's "Newsroom," has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a author, reporter, editor and commentator. You can contact
him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.