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Wednesday, Apr 29, 2009, 9:08 am

What’s Obama Done for Workers in His First 100 Days? Plenty.

By Art Levine

In the media frenzy over Obama's first 100 days, his administration's new direction for workers' rights and safety concerns hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.

While some in the labor movement are doubtless disappointed at the slow pace of the Employee Free Choice Act in moving through Congress, there are enough key figures in the administration, including Vice President Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, ensuring that the President keeps workers' priorities very much alive. That's why, in part, as the National Journal reported recently, "Labor Holds Its Fire: Despite setbacks, labor leaders have greeted the new administration as a liberator." The magazine observed, "Having been frustrated and even angered by the last two Democratic presidents, labor activists have decided to accentuate the positive when talking about the Obama administration."

There are a wide range of accomplishments that have already been enacted, from the $787 billion economic recovery package to initial reforms at OSHA to the passage of women's pay equity and children's health legislation. These and other initiatives justify the high marks labor leaders give President Obama. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, pointed out, "Over their first 100 days in office, President Obama and Vice President Biden have laid down a foundation of change for America's working families. They have taken big, concrete steps on the economy, health care and the protection of workers' rights that will build a more prosperous and fair future for working people and America." As Anna Burger, SEIU Secretary Treasurer, observed, "The fact that so many Americans are optimistic and involved despite tough times -- that's the hidden news in Obama's first 100 days that holds such great promise for our country."

With the glaring exception of the troubled, potentially disastrous bank bailout plan that could undercut any economic recovery, the Obama administration deserves at least an A- when it comes to taking action on behalf of workers.

Among the accomplishments pointed to by the AFL-CIO and other leading labor groups, including SEIU, are these developments (some paraphrased by me) that would have been unimaginable under the pro-business crony capitalism driven by George Bush's economic and labor policies:


* Pass economic stimulus plan that includes balanced tax relief for working people and investments in jobs, education, healthcare, roads and bridges - DONE

* Pass SCHIP so more children have the healthcare they need - DONE

* Strengthen the voice of Americans to fight discrimination with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act - DONE

* Pass a budget that puts a real down-payment toward guaranteeing the quality, affordable healthcare Americans deserve - DONE

* Provide a significant investment in green jobs as a pathway to a strong middle class and a sustainable future - DONE


Strengthening the Middle Class



White House Task Force On Middle Class Working Families. On January 30, President Obama established a cabinet-level task force, chaired by Vice President Biden, whose mission is to raise the living standards of middle class working families.

Building a Team of Worker Advocates

Hilda Solis. Rep. Hilda Solis was confirmed as Secretary of Labor on February 24. Secretary Solis will refocus the Department on its core mission: to defend workers' basic rights in the workplace. Throughout her 15 years of public service, Secretary Solis has demonstrated a commitment to defending workers' rights and has been a passionate advocate for working families. In the U.S. House of Representatives, she voted with working men and women 97 percent of the time. Secretary Solis is putting in place a terrific team of talented and committed people to lead the Labor Department.

Wilma Liebman. On January 20, President Obama designated Wilma Liebman chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It will be a refreshing change to have a labor board whose aim is to safeguard rather than undermine worker rights. Member Liebman has a long record of dedication to the Board's work, and when she finishes her current term, she will be the third-longest serving Board member.


The administration has also taken several regulatory actions to roll back some of the worst abuses and schemes of the Bush administration to strip workers of workplace safety and rights protections:

Reversing Anti-Worker Actions

Protection Against "Popcorn Lung." On March 16, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced it was moving to protect workers from a serious lung disease caused by diacetyl, the artificial butter flavoring added to popcorn and other food products. In recent years, hundreds of workers in plants where diacetyl is produced or applied to food have developed the rare and sometimes fatal disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as "popcorn lung." Technically, OSHA withdrew a last-minute advance notice of proposed rule making issued by the outgoing Bush administration that could have added two years to the standard-setting process.

Revocation of Bush Executive Order on Regulatory Review. On January 30, President Obama revoked a Bush administration executive order on regulatory review that essentially enabled political appointees at the White House's OMB to override agencies' rulemaking in order to undermine everything from worker safety to environmental protection. As explained in one environmental newsletter, "President Barack Obama has tossed a Bush-administration executive order that had strengthened the White House's role in federal rulemaking...Members of Congress, regulatory watchdog groups and other advocacy organizations have argued that the Bush amendments allowed the White House to stop important health and safety rules."

Executive Orders: Federal Contractors. On January 30, President Obama signed three executive orders, including those that aim to reverse a Bush order aimed at limiting union representation on federal contracts; and moved to prevent federal contractors from being reimbursed for unionbusting propganda compaigns during collective bargaining.

Executive Order: Project Labor Agreements. On February 6, President Obama signed an executive order overturning the Bush administration's ban on project labor agreements (PLAs) on federal and federally funded construction. Project labor agreements set wages and establish work rules and methods of settling grievances on large multi-contractor construction projects. For more than 70 years before the Bush order, project labor agreements benefited communities, employers and workers by ensuring fair wages and benefits and on-time completion of projects.


Even with all that, as the National Journal and others have noted, some labor officials would like to see more administration action taken on behalf of the Employee Free Choice Act. Yet both Obama and Biden have backed the bill, the union movement is building the Congressional support needed for passage , and its been encouraged by the appointment of such important pro-labor officials as Mary Beth Maxwell, the former executive director of American Rights at Work. So when the National Journal caught up with labor officials for comment, they were strikingly upbeat:

These days, even the most tough-minded labor leaders sound surprisingly patient with Obama.

Take Anna Burger, the hard-charging secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union and chairwoman of Change to Win, a coalition of seven unions. A few days after Obama

was elected, Burger made clear to a packed press conference that card-check legislation should be enacted within the first 100 days. Yet, as that magic number draws near, it is increasingly obvious that the legislation will not even be on the Senate floor until late June at the earliest.

Today, Burger is singing a different tune. When pressed in an interview about backtracking from her earlier stance, she said: "I would have thought we would have had Al Franken, to be perfectly honest, in by now. We don't have him in the first 100 days. We need his vote to get things done. So I don't think we will be able to vote the Employee Free Choice Act until we get Al Franken seated, and I think he will be seated next month. It isn't a problem that we have had because of our president. It is a problem that we have had because a Republican [Sen. Norm Coleman] won't let go of the fact that he lost the election."

Elaborating on Burger's theme, Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's top lobbyist, said: "The White House has been clear that they continue to support the bill. It is our job to build support in Congress."


And that's just what organized labor and its allies, from students to civil rights leaders to clergy, did during the recent two-week Congressional recess. And that activism -- and increased local media coverage on the legislation -- has only been enhanced by Tuesday's defection by Sen. Arlen Specter. Pro-labor observers say that the pragmatic Specter will be quite willing to help shape a compromise bill acceptable to unions, himself and his moderate Senate colleagues if he hopes to get elected in the Democratic primary.

It's little wonder that labor leaders such as Stewart Acuff, the special assistant to the AFL-CIO's President and a veteran of labor's grass-roots organizing battles, remain so upbeat about both Obama and the labor agenda after 100 days. Noting the Republican-driven economic meltdown and other crises, he says, "He's doing extremely well in very difficult circumstances. He continues to have our unwavering support and appreciation. He has done an awful lot in 100 days, but there is much to be done and we intend to do all we can to help him succeed."

And if both labor and Obama succeed in achieving their goals (and the administration somehow fixes the banking mess), Obama's first 100 days will be seen as a down-payment on a more prosperous, healthier and secure America.

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.

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