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Posts Tagged ‘State of the Union’

State of the Union Address Barely Mentions Unions

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

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.

This blog originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on January 13, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Mike Elk is a labor journalist whose investigative work has been cited on the front page of the New York Times and debated by Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters on ABC’s The View. Elk won a Sidney Award for his coverage of how corporations crafted legislation to exempt prison labor from U.S. minimum wage laws.  Elk has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Reuters and The Nation and is currently a reporter at Politico.

Obama: The First Farewell

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

The common sense was a necessary corrective to the stuff and nonsense of the political campaign trail. Noting the progress made in recovering from the Great Recession, the president reminded that the U.S. economy is the “strongest and most durable in the world,” now enjoying the longest streak of months with jobs creation in its history.

In contrast to the hysteria generated by the Trumped-up campaign, he said that the U.S. is the “most powerful nation on earth.” Its military has no competitor; “It’s not even close.” He sought to put the fears fanned by the ISIS and the acts of terror in perspective. We’re threatened less “by evil empires, more by failing states.” ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorists can create terrorist acts across the world. But this is not “World War III,” and it is a disservice to call it that. The terrorists are violent thugs but “do not threaten our national existence.” Needless to say, Republicans immediately panned this common sense and revved up their hysteria. Good sense is a first casualty of terror.

The president celebrated the reality that he has begun to transform our energy policy and essentially declared victory in the debate over climate change. The debate is over. The world was acting together to begin to address climate change. And America is leading, with the president claiming that we had cut carbon pollution more than any other country on earth.

If the economy is so strong, why are the people hurting? Here, Obama reiterated his passive voice populism. Americans “feel anxious” because we live in a time of “extraordinary change.” Technology is transforming our economy in “profound ways.” That’s why workers have less leverage, companies less loyalty, wealth and income is more concentrated. We have to make change our friend, and navigate its currents. He then offered a sensible, if modest, agenda on education, extending shared security guarantees, greater support for the working poor.

But technological change has always been with us. Globalization is the result of policy, not an act of nature. Yes, we have to navigate the changes wrought by technological change. But the reason Americans are “anxious” is that the rules have been rigged to favor the few, not because technology mandates less worker leverage or company loyalty.

The president did offer a dollop of more active voice populism later on, an unstated tribute to Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, when discussing the fierce debate over “what role government should play in making sure the system’s not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and biggest corporations.”

“Working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules…Food stamp recipients didn’t cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did. Immigrants aren’t the reason wages haven’t gone up enough; those decisions are made in boardrooms…”

“In this economy, workers and start-ups and small businesses need more of a voice, not less.”

Yet this populist frame led nowhere. The president offered no agenda for empowering workers, no pledge of executive action to give government contract workers the right to join a union. Instead he pledged only to “lift up many businesses” that are doing the right thing.

Similarly on foreign policy, after stating the fact that we are the most powerful nation in the world, the president argued that our challenge is how to exercise leadership without pretending to police the world. Sensibly, he argued this would require a sense of priorities. Yet, he suggested that the U.S. would be on patrol against instability in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ukraine, Central America, Africa and Asia. The challenge was to mobilize allies to “pull their own weight” in acting with us. But if the U.S. is on guard across the world, then it isn’t surprising that our “allies” as in the Middle East have their own priorities and are happy to let us do the heavy lifting elsewhere.

The president returned, somewhat wistfully, to the themes that launched his presidency – the need to recover our sense of one America, to overcome partisan division and discord, the strengths and spirit that sustain us as a nation. In doing so, he reminded us of the historic nature of his presidency, and of the dignity and decency with which he has borne the burdens of office.

He also used this theme to call for us to “fix our politics,” to change the system so people don’t think it is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or the narrow interests. That requires changing how we draw congressional districts, reducing the influence of big money, and making voting easier, rather than harder. The president pledged to spend part of the next year supporting these reforms at the state and local level, even while pushing against the wall of opposition at the national level.

Obama knows how to deliver a speech. Like Lincoln, he uses logic and common sense to stake his position and make his case. He has an author’s care about language. But in trying to describe our common ground, he has chosen not to “litigate the past,” either on our economic course or on our foreign policy follies. At a time when Americans had to learn clearly how failed conservative doctrines had led us into the fix we are in, the president chose not to issue the indictment. That was true at the start of his administration as he inherited a failed war and a collapsing economy. And it is true as his term draws to a close, despite the unrelentingly bitter partisan and ideological opposition he has endured.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on January 13, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Borosage is a board member of both the Blue Green Alliance and Working America.  He earned a BA in political science from Michigan State University in 1966, a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1968, and a JD from Yale Law School in 1971. Borosage then practiced law until 1974, at which time he founded the Center for National Security Studies.

State of the Union: Don’t Let the TPP Sink Our Wages

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

CD speaking at UCSD FairTrade RallyThe president will give his final State of the Union address tonight. Traditionally, this annual speech reviews the accomplishments of years past and sets out a “to-do” list for the year ahead. Although the White House has indicated that this year’s speech will be “nontraditional,” it has made clear the economy will be a major focus.

I hope the president will talk about the importance of the proposed overtime rule, which could raise wages for some 15 million of America’s working people. I also hope he talks about how the auto manufacturing industry has soared back to life since the so-called bailout, which saved 1.5 million jobs in its first year alone.

While the economy isn’t perfect, and most of us are still feeling the pinch of student loans, too-smallpaychecks, threats to retirement security and not enough voice in our workplaces, there are a lot of successes the president can look back on with pride in his speech.

On the other hand, there is also a new trade and economic deal on the horizon—the Trans-Pacific Partnership—that could poke a hole in the progress our economy has made since the president came in to office in 2009.

The thing that’s dangerous about the TPP, and the reason we should worry about it shrinking our paychecks, is not the idea of trade. Trade is good—but we shouldn’t confuse “trade” with so-called “trade agreements,” which set down rules not just for “trade,” but for food safety, Wall Street regulations, prescription medicines and investor rights. These are the kind of rules that should be made in public, in democratic fashion, not in a secretly negotiated agreement that can’t be amended. The TPP’s corporate giveaways are dangerous.

Existing trade rules (including those in the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.–Korea trade deal) already cost the average U.S. worker $1,800 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and preliminary studies on the TPP by Center for Economic and Policy Research and Tufts indicate that we can expect that figure to get worse.

Working people are deeply disappointed that the opportunities to put workers’ interests first and eliminate corporate entitlements in the TPP were largely ignored.  And more importantly, working people are disappointed because we know that all of these things mean fewer good jobs in our communities and fewer opportunities for our children.

The TPP is the latest example of the failed U.S. approach to trade that started with NAFTA, which drives down wages and creates special rights for corporations.  The TPP could have been different, but instead it is a collection of minor tweaks designed to get congressional votes rather than ensure workers’ wages rise.

The AFL-CIO wants trade agreements that grow our economy, create good jobs in America and give working people in all countries the chance to succeed when they work hard. Instead, passage of the TPP will mean lost jobs and lower wages.

Compared to eight years ago, the U.S. economy is afloat and heading toward improvement. The TPP will undermine that progress and give us rocky sailing ahead. There is simply no good argument for trading away our right to control our economy in exchange for more corporate power.

I hope the TPP doesn’t come up at all in the State of the Union speech. We’d be better off without it. But if it does—let’s be clear about what it really means for America’s working families.

Let’s raise our voices against this corporate giveaway and make it clear the TPP must go down to defeat!

This blog appeared on aflico.org on January 12, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Celeste Drake is a Trade & Globalization Policy Specialist at AFL-CIO.  Her experience with the labor movement was as a UFCW member while bagging groceries during college.  She also served as the Legislative Director for Representative Linda Sanches (D-CA).

Trumka: Obama 'Forcefully Advocated for Working Families' in State of Union

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Image: Mike HallAFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said,

“President Obama eloquently and forcefully advocated for working families throughout his State of the Union Address,” last night. He also said:

‘The  president’s focus on raising wages through collective bargaining, better paying jobs, a fairer tax code, fair overtime rules, and expanded access to education and earned leave sent the right message at the right time.'”

So did his embrace of union apprentices and immigrants who want to achieve the American Dream. The president has again demonstrated his strong commitment to creating an economy that truly works for all working people.

Fighting income inequality is one of the biggest challenges of our time. As Oxfam recently reminded us, the world’s wealth continues to be increasingly concentrated in the hands of a very few. If we are serious about solving this monumental challenge, the size of the solutions must meet the scale of the problem. We must have a similarly vigorous response to the barriers to raising wages: our opposition to fast-tracked trade deals that are giant giveaways to big corporations must be resolute. We can’t face the competitive challenge of China with a trade deal that fails to adequately address currency manipulation, climate change or that gives corporations rights that people don’t have.

Now is the time for politicians to champion a Raising Wages agenda that ties all the pieces of economic and social justice together. America has now heard what the president thinks about this agenda. We thank the president for his passion and his advocacy. We are ready to see what he and Congress will do about it. That is the ultimate standard of accountability.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on January 21, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

Obama’s Wage Hike For Federal Contractors Won’t Apply to Disabled Workers

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Mike ElkIn his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama announced that he would issue an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 for workers employed on federal contracts. The order has yet to be issued, so it’s unclear exactly how many and what type of workers will be covered. However, one group is already slated for exclusion: workers in a special government contracting program for people with disabilities.

Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, says that disability advocates were informed on a conference call Wednesday with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez that Obama’s executive order will not apply to federal contractors that use “14(c) programs”—in which workers with disabilities are paid subminimum wages.

Under the 14(c) exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers with disabilities are excluded from minimum-wage protections if they are employed in certified training programs. Though there is no official government data on the size of these programs, the National Council on Disabilities estimates that the federal government employs thousands of workers under 14(c). Nationwide, approximately 420,000 disabled Americans are employed in 14(c) programs coordinated through federal, state and local governments, and legally paid below the minimum, with some only making pennies per hour.

As Working In These Times reported last March, deep divisions remain within the disability community and even among top Congressional Democrats over whether disabled workers employed in 14(c) programs should be paid below the minimum wage. Some disability advocates—led by ACCSES, which represents employers of disabled workers under the 14(c) programs—claim that these programs provide valuable training to help transition people with disabilities into jobs, and that a minimum wage requirement would make that mission impossible.

Other advocates, however, say that the programs don’t provide meaningful training and rarely lead to outside jobs.  A 2001 study by the federal General Accountability Office (GAO) found that only 5 percent of workers employed in 14(c)-sheltered workplace programs left to take regular “integrated employment” jobs. These critics say the programs contribute to the well-documented cycle of poverty for those with disabilities: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a person with a disability is three times as likely to live in poverty as a person without a disability.

On Thursday, the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal advisory board, issued a statement on Thursday afternoon blasting the Obama administration’s decision to exempt workers with disabilities from the minimum-wage increase.

According to the National Council on Disability’s statement, “NCD believes that the Section 14(c) program is a policy relic from the 1930s, when discrimination was inevitable because service systems were based on a charity model, rather than empowerment and self-determination, and when societal low expectations for people with disabilities colored policymaking … If the administration agrees with this principle and wants to stamp out income inequality for all Americans, including Americans with disabilities, we urge you to reconsider what was shared on yesterday’s White House conference call and explicitly state in the Executive Order that the increase in the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors applies to all employees of federal contractors, including thousands of Americans with disabilities who are currently being paid less than minimum wage under the Section 14(c) program.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. According to Ne’eman of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, officials told him on Wednesday’s conference that the Obama administration believes it doesn’t have the authority to raise the wages of 14(c) workers.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network disputes this claim. In a legal memo put out Thursday, it concludes that “payment of subminimum wages to contract and sub-contract workers with disabilities is not required by statute [but] is left to the direction of the Department of Labor…As a result, to the extent that the president enjoys the authority to direct executive agencies to set a minimum wage for workers on all federal contracts, he may also direct those agencies to eliminate subminimum wage payment of contract workers with disabilities.”

To Ne’eman, the administration’s decision makes no sense. “We think they [have the authority] and hope our analysis will convince them,” he wrote in an email to Working In These Times. “If the administration has the power to raise the wages of workers without disabilities employed by government contractors, they have the power to do the same for workers with disabilities. There is no statute requiring government contractors to pay less than minimum wage to workers with disabilities.”

This article was originally printed in Working In These Times on January 30, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

Making America the Best Place on Earth to Work

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Leo GerardNot the wars. Not greenhouse gasses. Not even the deficit. The issue most important to Americans is jobs.

Despite that, jobs failed to make an appearance in the State of the Union address.

The talk was all about business. Business was doing better. Business needed taxpayers to help pay for research and innovation. Business will get government help to eliminate pesky regulations. Business must have lower taxes.

The most telling statement was this:

“We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business.”

Especially because it wasn’t matched by a companion:

“We have to make America the best place on Earth to work.”

The speech expressed a policy in which business is the focus of government, taking precedence over workers.  The American colonists created a government for their own benefit; they did not constitute an agent to serve business. A policy giving corporations primacy is risky for American workers.

The state of the union noted that happy days are here again for corporations and banks:

“Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.”

Never mentioned, however, were the 14.5 million unemployed Americans, the sustained record rate of foreclosure, and the increasing poverty and food bank reliance among citizens of the richest nation in the world.

The state of the union outlined a plan under which the government will coddle corporations, essentially proving companies government welfare using American workers’ tax dollars. If businesses create jobs for workers as a result, fine. If they don’t, there’s no plan to exact a penalty.

For example, under the policy described in the speech, American workers will fork over tax dollars to pay for research and development for businesses that are sitting on a record $1.8 trillion in cash reserves — hoarding it rather than creating jobs.

The president said:

“Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”

Maybe it will create new jobs. Hopefully. But no guarantees were offered. Mentioned as a business success story in the speech was a Michigan company, Luma Resources, which began manufacturing solar shingles with the help of a $500,000 government grant. It created 20 jobs, $25,000 a job.  American taxpayers might think that’s a little pricey, but what’s worse is the potential for Luma Resources to go the way of Evergreen Solar, squandering the corporate welfare.

Evergreen, the third largest maker of solar panels in the U.S. and recipient of at least $43 million in corporate welfare, announced earlier this month it would close its main American factory in Massachusetts and move manufacturing to China. Eight hundred Americans will lose their Evergreen jobs by April.

Evergreen officials said China will give the company even higher amounts of corporate welfare, which, of course, makes sense since China is not a capitalist country. Its economy is government controlled. And that government routinely violates international trade regulations – by providing banned subsidies to industries and by deliberately devaluing its currency.

No matter how better educated American workers get. No matter how much more innovative. No matter how much more productive. No matter how many tax dollars the government spends on research and development, if the corporations that benefit move manufacturing overseas, the American workers who paid for it will suffer.

In fact, it’s more than suffering; it’s betrayal by their government that provided tax benefits to companies for off-shoring jobs. It is betrayal by their government that fails to stop violations of trade laws by countries like China that lure away firms like Evergreen.

At the end of the State of the Union speech, the president said:

“From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream.”

An ordinary American dreams of a family-supporting job, owning a home, saving enough to pay for a child’s college education, helping to build a safe community. Corporations aren’t Americans, no matter how often the U.S. Supreme Court grants them rights that the U.S. Constitution guarantees to human beings. Businesses aren’t citizens. Their allegiance isn’t to America. It’s to profits. They dream only of dollars. They concede no responsibility to family, community or country.

They were not included when the president said:

“Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater — something more consequential than party or political preference.  We are part of the American family.”

The top priority of the American government must be making America the best place on Earth for Americans.  If that’s good for corporations, great. The government must never place American citizens second.

*This post originally appeared in United Steelworker’s Blog on January 31, 2010.

About the Author: Leo W. Gerard is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama recently appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of the Apollo Alliance, Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.  He is a member of the IMF and ICEM global labor federations and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union.

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