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Obama's inauguration speech on Monday, January 21, never referenced organized labor. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Obama’s Progressive Agenda: Missing a Main Ingredient

Stonewall, Selma and Seneca Falls got inaugural shout-outs–but one movement went unsung.

BY James Thindwa

Pay equity, the workers' rights issue Obama has focused on, is an important but safe issue for him. After all, who really can oppose this? But pay equity is not a substitute for union rights. Where union organizing can raise wages for all workers, pay equity simply guarantees equal treatment. The workers can be equal in poverty.

Based on his inaugural speech—and a populist re-election campaign—President Barack Obama intends to pursue a more progressive direction in his second term. Pundits from across the political spectrum have already declared the president a bona fide, card-carrying progressive. On Fox News, Charles Krauthammer bemoaned the “end of Reaganism” that Obama’s speech signaled, and on progressive radio, Thom Hartmann said he agreed with Krauthammer. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post said Obama laid out a “clear progressive philosophy” for the next four years.

But for movement progressives, there are two important caveats and takeaways from the president’s newfound confidence in articulating a populist agenda. One brings validation—albeit combined with frustration. The other reinforces a worrisome tendency by the president and the Democratic Party.

First, the vindication: Time and again, as in the 2012 presidential election, progressives are reminded that their views—not the rightwing dogma propagated on Fox News—are in the mainstream; that Democrats do well when they embrace progressive ideas and run on them. President Obama won re-election on a populist message challenging the credibility of a 1 percent-er who was the embodiment of the wealth divide, corporate elitism and excess. Obama talked about the haves and have-nots, promised further withdrawal from current wars and, with polls showing public opposition to cuts in social programs, ran on defending them. Back in 2000, Al Gore resurrected his flagging campaign by adopting a solidly progressive message in his presidential bid against George W. Bush and came close to winning the White House—well, he won, but we won’t relitigate.

Of course, for progressives, therein lies the contradiction—and source of unending frustration. If Democrats can win elections championing progressive ideas, then why don’t they govern that way? If Democrats know that, contrary to rightwing protestations, voters do not reject government but want one that works for them; that mitigating climate change must be a priority; that taking care of the poor is our collective obligation; that public investments in education and infrastructure are the price of civilization; that defense spending must be reigned in; and that undocumented immigrants must be treated with dignity and given a pathway to citizenship—then where are the Democratic Party’s policy initiatives to address these issues? Why, for example, didn’t Obama fight for the “public option” or, for that matter propose a single-payer national health plan? Why didn’t he aggressively push climate legislation beyond the polluter-protection racket called “cap-and-trade”? Why didn’t the president champion marriage equality earlier and possibly help shape the national debate? The presidential bully pulpit can go a long way to move public opinion on matters of national importance.

Second, the worrisome tendency by Democrats: Notwithstanding Obama’s welcome and reassuring political posture in this moment, his wishlist for progressive transformation is lacking a key item. The president has shown no interest in seriously defending organized labor and union rights, even as Michigan, the “cradle of the labor movement” was instantaneously flipped into a “right-to-work” state. And this followed brazen attacks on workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana by GOP governors in the service of corporate elites seeking a return to unfettered capitalism and unbridled exploitation of workers.

During his re-election campaign, and in his personal reflections about the election, President Obama went to great lengths to avoid publicly acknowledging the valiant and very consequential contributions of organized labor to his re-election. By contrast, while in Chicago on the day after being re-elected, the president cried a tear of gratitude before his young campaign volunteers. There is no evidence that Obama ever gave unions that kind of public, heartfelt recognition. The president of a union local in Ohio confided to me that she was “livid” when Democratic leaders “made their rounds” after the election and “thanked everybody but the unions.”

Then there is the admirable enthusiasm President Obama showed in his inaugural speech for other important cornerstones of a progressive infrastructure. His defense of gay rights (“our gay brothers and sisters”), call to action on climate change (“failure to do so would betray our children”), fire-walling of Social Security and Medicare (“these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us”), and reaffirmation of the civil and women’s rights movements (“Selma” and “Seneca Falls”) deserve praise. But why can’t the president muster that kind of enthusiasm for union rights?

The right to organize is a core Democratic (and democratic) principle. It serves a fundamental social justice purpose, is universally recognized, and is indispensable to a healthy democracy. Why are these considerations not compelling enough for the president to pick up this cause? And how about just backing unions as a simple gesture of reciprocity for the financial and organizational investment they make to elect Democrats?

It didn’t help that in celebrating this moment of progressive possibility, some trusted progressive opinion-makers failed to flag Obama’s serious omission. Ed Shultz opened his otherwise reliably pro-labor show on the day of the inaugural speech by praising President Obama for recognizing “those who made his second term possible”—a declaration labor leaders might find problematic. On the same show, Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) applauded the president for championing pay equity and, citing the two-thirds of workers on minimum wage who are women, urged him to complete the “unfinished business from the first four years.” No mention of labor rights, which are a surefire remedy for both gender discrimination and poverty.

Reviving the primacy of labor rights will require all partners in the progressive movement to develop political savvy and the wherewithal to defend this endangered civil right. For a Democratic president to declare a new progressive renewal without labor rights at its center is an embarrassment for Democrats, and a betrayal of the rich history of the country’s populist social movements. Pay equity, the workers' rights issue Obama has focused on, is an important but safe issue for him. After all, who really can oppose this? But pay equity is not a substitute for union rights. Where union organizing can raise wages for all workers, pay equity simply guarantees equal treatment. The workers can be equal in poverty.

Considering the disappointments of the first term, some will question Obama’s commitment to a real progressive agenda this time around. They will also question his motives. Has he selected certain progressive issues because they align with the political winds, or because they don’t seriously challenge corporate power? Indeed, in many parts of the country, growing public acceptance of gay rights now carries a risk for politicians peddling homophobia. Public interest in climate mitigation has grown, fueled by real life experience, notably Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Might that be why the president now feels comfortable talking about climate change? But by taking on the cause of labor rights, with the attendant prospect of alienating Democrats’ corporate benefactors, the president could go a long way to allay such doubts.

In the meantime, we can learn from other key constituencies of the Democratic Party. The “DREAMers” and other immigrant rights activists organized, marched, and raised hell. They chased after politicians and forced them to listen. Obama responded with a moratorium on deporting DREAMers, and now the president has committed to pushing comprehensive immigration reform in his second term. Similarly, gay rights activists marched and organized, and the national dynamic on gay rights has shifted in their favor. Bill McKibben’s 350.org faces a daunting challenge trying to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, but their organizing forced a moratorium, and though imperfect, is an example of what a little agitation can accomplish.

The lesson here is, progressives should be less defensive and more pro-active. For unions, this means laying out, as a condition for further support, a progressive, pro-labor program for Democrats to champion, then agitating from outside to make it happen.

James Thindwa is a member of In These Times' Board of Directors and a labor and community activist.

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