Appraising Obama Alliance, Labor Leaders Push for Jobs

David Moberg

ORLANDO, FLA. — In the squat, spartan Painters union hall in Orlando, decorated with bright red and yellow signs saying Jobs Is Job Number One,” workers and students described lay-offs, reduced hours, long job searches, separations from children, foreclosed homes, and dim prospects for anything but dead-end retail jobs after graduating from college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

That’s the economic landscape for much of working-class America today — and even more so in Florida, where the unemployment rate runs a couple points above the national average. The national AFL-CIO had arranged the community meeting of a couple hundred and the panels of witnesses to help kick off its jobs campaign as the federation’s executive council meets here this week, as I reported yesterday.

Curtis Duffield, the last on the panel, was an anomaly – grey-haired, dressed in suit and tie, the owner of a unionized contractor who employed 40 electricians a year ago, just 15 today. After 28 years in the business, he said, it’s about as bad as I’ve seen.” In addition to problems from a slump in construction, he said his small business faced problems getting credit, high bank rates, and higher demands for collateral, even though he’s never even been late with a payment.

So it makes him angry to see banks paying out billions in bonuses to executives who didn’t build or manufacture anything while my 25 former employees have to do without.”

We need government to act on an FDR 101 plan,” he told the cheering crowd. If we want to put people to work, fix our dilapidated infrastructure….Tell the president we need jobs, and we need them now.”

That’s precisely the message AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka wanted to convey. The AFL-CIO is launching a major educational and organizing drive with five goals:

  • extend unemployment insurance, COBRA (extended health insurance options for the unemployed), food stamps and the immediate safety net. 
  • increase infrastructure spending. 
  • aid cash-strapped state budgets. 
  • create useful public service jobs in areas of especially high unemployment. 
  • and use leftover TARP (bank bailout) funds to encourage community bank lending to small and mid-sized business.

Beyond the 40 percent of the first Obama stimulus funds that have not yet been spent, the AFL-CIO plan envisions an additional $900 billion needed to restart job creation adequately. Faster growth will generate revenue to repay some of the cost, but the AFL-CIO also supports Obama proposals for banks to repay TARP costs (about $70 billion), higher taxes on bonuses and high salaries in the financial sector, eliminating the special exemption from normal income taxation for hedge fund operators, and imposing a small tax on all financial transactions (which could raise about $400 billion a year).

Besides raising revenue, these reforms would create incentives against speculation and for long-term productive investment, AFL-CIO policy director Damon Silvers argues.

The federation plans a week of protests starting March 15 promoting these reforms plus other financial reforms already approved by the House, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Authority.

The federation’s stimulus and financial reform proposals go beyond anything the Obama administration has proposed. That raises the prospects of renewed tensions between much of organized labor and an administration most had seen – and still want to regard – as basically pro-labor and working families.

Vice President Joe Biden opened the executive council meeting with a speech that pleaded for understanding and support, often making personal appeals to individual labor leaders to mend any fraying relations over the slowness of progress. Biden immediately said how pleased he was to be with people with whom we almost always agree – we might not get it done – but we agree.”

Biden acknowledged public anger over bank bailouts and bonuses but argued that without the bailouts it would be a flat-out depression” with millions out of work. And despite high unemployment, he said, the stimulus is working – saving or creating 2 to 2.4 million jobs and triggering 6.4 percent growth of the GDP in the first quarter.

But he noted the political problems unions face. You have a hard time explaining why the guys you elected haven’t been able to do more….What’s happening? A year later and I don’t have a job….We get it. We get the fact that you guys are under a lot of pressure, too,” Biden said. But he ticked off projects that were creating jobs, linking them to union presidents in the audience whose members were most affected.

Biden also promised a renewal of manufacturing in the U.S. of technologies of the future, especially environmentally sustainable energy sources, high-speed trains, hybrid cars, powerful batteries and other green” products, even as he acknowledged that wind turbines for the spurt in new wind power installations were coming from overseas, including China.

When you get EFCA [labor law reform], who are you going to organize?” he asked. Are you going to organize the shrinking industries” or these expanding industries? But the vice president gave no clue about how or when EFCA could pass or what the administration might do to foster unionization of federally subsidized projects.

Union leaders gave Biden moderately warm applause at times, but afterwards he faced pointed questions about whether there would be more aid to save state worker jobs, whether the administration would make recess appointments of blocked National Labor Relations Board nominees, and why the administration was backing mass firings of Central Falls, R.I., high-school teachers, among others. Biden reportedly ducked and evaded the challenges, echoing his political advice for union leaders dealing with their own members: It’s about letting them know we get it.”

That professed compassion may not be enough to win over many union members. But labor leaders are carefully feeling out how best to respond to disappointments with Democrats. The federation political committee passed a resolution in favor of supporting Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter against Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who has repeatedly sided with Republicans against key labor goals, most recently sustaining a filibuster against NLRB appointees. While formal endorsement awaits a decision by the state labor federation, unions have already pledged $3 million for an independent campaign effort.

But pressed to offer any criticism of the Obama administration, Trumka responded by explaining the difficulties Obama faced and defending the actions the administration without finding fault. In a panel of experts invited to provoke debate in the council, historian Nelson Lichtenstein said that in the past, labor and social movements had succeeded most with Democratic administrations by being troublesome and unreliable allies.”

Unions are still testing the waters about just how troublesome they want to be.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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