State of the Union Address Barely Mentions Unions

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.

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 wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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