The State of the Unions

With labor under full-scale attack, President Obama must speak up.

Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

The president's fifth State of the Union address is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 at 7pm EST. (The U.S. Army / Flickr / Creative Commons).

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President Barack Obama has demonstrated his gutsiness in recent months by speaking so many words that craven politicians contend cannot be spoken.

Radical Republicans and the multi-national corporations that fill their moneybags are brazenly attacking labor unions, attempting to deny all workers the right to collectively bargain. President Obama must forcefully condemn this malicious campaign.

These are hot-button words like same sex-marriage, immigration reform, gun control and climate change. Fighting words. The president even specifically addressed three of these in his second inaugural speechthe civil rights of gay Americans, the threat of climate change and the need for immigration reform.

Taking on any one of these issues, let alone all of them at once, illustrates the audacity of the guy. That’s good, because another inflammatory word must be placed on his to-say list: union. Radical Republicans and the multi-national corporations that fill their moneybags are brazenly attacking labor unions, attempting to deny all workers the right to collectively bargain. President Obama must forcefully condemn this malicious campaign to undermine the American middle class. He must proclaim to the whole country, not just to labor union members, that he will protect the right of workers to use the power of collective action to secure equitable wages. 

Obama has assured union members he has their backs. Here’s what he said in his first Labor Day speech in 2009:

So let us never forget: much of what we take for grantedthe 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, health insurance, paid leave, pensions, Social Security, Medicarethey all bear the union label. It was the American workerunion men and womenwho returned from World War II to make our economy the envy of the world. It was labor that helped build the largest middle class in history. So even if you’re not a union member, every American owes something to America’s labor movement.”

On Labor Day two years later, radicals in the Republican Party were pushing so-called Right to Work (RTW) legislation that denies companies and unions the right to bargain over requiring payments in lieu of dues from workers who decline to join the union. These laws weaken unions because they allow workers to shirk their responsibility to help pay the costs of the union services they benefit from. Here’s what President Obama said then:

I know it’s not easy when there’s some folks who have their sights trained on you…And I want everybody here to know, as long as I’m in the White House I’m going to stand up for collective bargaining. And we’re going to keep at it. Because having a voice on the job and a chance to organize and a chance to negotiate for a fair day’s pay after a hard day’s work, that is the right of every man and woman in Americanot just the CEO in the corner office, but also the janitor who cleans that office after the CEO goes home. Everybody has got the same right.”

As he ran for President in 2007, Obama walked a picket line with UNITE HERE Local 1 in Chicago, and he said this in a speech at Converse College in South Carolina:

And understand this: If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.” 

When the radical Republican governor of Wisconsin stomped on the bargaining rights of public sector union workers, when the radical Republican governor of Ohio restricted the collective bargaining rights of 360,000 public workers, when the radical Republican governors of Indiana and Michigan signed legislation denying workers bargaining rights, some union members called for President Obama to put on those comfortable shoes. But he did not.

He did not put on those shoes when his Republican opponent Mitt Romney attacked 29,000 teachers striking in President Obama’s hometown of Chicago, or when Hostess Brands management bankrupted the companyagainand speciously blamed the loss of Twinkies on the company’s 15,000 union workers, or when the American Crystal Sugar Co. locked out 1,300 union workers.

Now, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that in 2012 the number of American workers in labor unions fell to a record low of 11.3 percent, down from 20.1 percent two decades earlier. Now, new legislation to limit bargaining rights has been introduced in Pennsylvania and Missouri, and even in the U.S. Congress by radical Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul. 

These Republicans intend to wipe out labor unions. In his 2011 Labor Day speech, President Obama described the consequence of killing unions:

America cannot have a strong, growing economy without a strong, growing middle class and without a strong labor movement.” 

The American labor movement knows President Obama supports it philosophically. He has said so repeatedly on Labor Day. But he never mentioned unions in his inaugural or State of the Union addresses, except once in passing. As extremists try to destroy the labor movement in this country, it’s essential for President Obama to formally and forcefully declare to the entire nation the merits of unions.

Last month in his second inaugural address, the President said, Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

This week, his fifth State of the Union speech gives President Obama a perfect opportunity to proclaim to all of America that he will preserve the freedom to engage in collective action. It’s an important moment for him to say the word union” loudly. 

This article was reprinted from United Steelworkers, a sponsor of In These Times.

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Leo Gerard is international president of the United Steelworkers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union miner; Gerard started working at a nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union’s ranks to be appointed the seventh international president Feb. 28, 2001. For more information about Gerard, visit usw​.org.
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