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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Jan 25, 2012, 5:22 pm

State of the Union Address Barely Mentions Unions

BY Mike Elk

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 24, 2012.   (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

WASHINGTON. D.C.—Last night, President Obama gave his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress—but barely mentioned unions. The president did touch on a number of issues important to workers—such as increasing manufacturing in America, taxing the rich more equitably, increasing education funding and increasing enforcement of trade laws—but said nothing about increased attacks on workers’ rights around the country during the last 12 months. 

This despite 2011 being the a year in which unions (especially those representing public-sector workers) have been under unprecedented attacks in places like Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.

The only time Obama explicitly mentioned a union was in reference to  “Master Lock's unionized plant” in Milwaukee, which he said is now running at "full capacity" because the company brought back jobs from overseas. 

At the beginning of his speech, Obama said: “At the end of World War II, when another generation of heroes returned home from combat, they built the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known.” However, he did not mention the fundamental role that unions played in building that middle class. Unions represented nearly one-third of all workers in the decade following World War II.

One of the only times that President Obama did indirectly to address union issues was in what could be interpreted to be a reference to wanting more “flexibility” in contract language “to replace teachers.” Obama said:

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn. That's a bargain worth making.

While some could interpret this language as attacking the contract clauses of teacher union contracts, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten did not see this as an anti-teacher union statement, telling In These Times, “I heard a different tone about what teachers and students need—as well as what he has always said about teacher accountability.” Weingarten further praised the speech, saying that it was about “fighting for the middle class, for economic fairness, taking on the banks, telling others to stop bashing and leading with accountability—it’s an important populist message for the times we are in. I think the president deserves that acknowledgement.”

The only other time that Obama referenced an event involving a union was in speaking about the role of workers (represented by the United Auto Workers union) in helping to revive the auto industry. Obama said: "In exchange for help, we demanded responsibility. We got workers and automakers to settle their differences. We got the industry to retool and restructure. Today, General Motors is back on top as the world's number one automaker."

While praising GM’s return to profitability, Obama did not mention how, despite the auto industry returning to profitability, the industry has done nothing to eliminate a two-tier wage system that was implemented as part of the bailout. The UAW did not return request for comment on the president’s section of the speech.

“There is little or nothing in this speech to oppose what most employers are doing; cutting jobs, busting unions, slashing wages, liquidating benefits, and running roughshod over workers in every way possible," said UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend. "As for workers, we are forced to work for a poverty existence at a "competitive wage" until we tipple into the grave. How inspiring is that?”  

Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, criticized the speech for failing to emphasize the importance of protecting living standards and workers' rights. "We need a national jobs policy that creates enough jobs for all those who are able to work, raises core standards around living wages and family-supporting benefits, stops and deters wage theft, and ensures that public and private sector workers have the right to collective bargaining," she said in a statement Wednesday.

But despite the lack of positive references to the role of unions and organized labor, the speech did receive good reviews for Obama’s calls to renew America's manufacturing sector, enforce trade laws more fairly, crack down on Wall Street, and reform tax laws to tax wealthy people at higher rates. (Billionaire Warren Buffet's secretary was actually present for the speech to symbolize America's dysfunctional tax code; her boss actually pays a lower tax rate overall than she does.) Specifically, he called for the creation of a “Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said:

President Obama's speech tonight shows that he has listened to the single mom working two jobs to get by, to the out-of-work construction worker, to the retired factory worker, to the student serving coffee to help pay for college. …And tonight he made clear that the era of the 1% getting rich by looting the economy, rather than creating jobs, is over—what a contrast to the vision presented by presidential candidates squabbling over how much further to cut the taxes of the 1%. 

The call for reviewing manufacturing and cracking down on unfair trade practices drew particular praise from United Steelworkers (USW) President Leo Gerard. He said:

President Obama has listened to us as American workers and laid out a vision of the America we want and need, one that creates jobs and prosperity for us and not the 1% who have looted the economy….The President’s commitment to discourage job outsourcing and promote insourcing is a ticket to a better economy. 

We especially applaud the announcement to renew his policy to get tough on trade enforcement with a new unit to bring together resources and investigators from across the government to go after unfair trade practices in countries around the world, including China.

The GOp chose Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to deliver the party's response to the State of the Union address. Daniels has spearheaded the effort to pass “Right-to-Work” legislation in Indiana, which would weaken private-sector unions. On its website, the AFL-CIO said the choice of Daniels sends a “clear signal the party is making attacks on working people a top priority in the 2012 elections.”

Surprisingly, though, Daniels didn't say anything about unions. At least from my perspective last night, it was as if the massive fights for collective bargaining rights we witnessed in Wisconsin and Ohio last year (which, of course, continue in Wisconsin) never even happened.

Full disclosure: the UAW and USW are In These Times sponsors.

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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