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So, What About The State Of The Unions, Mr. President?

Unions? Organized labor? The AFL-CIO? Those words were nowhere to be heard in President Obama's State of the Union address, despite labor's vital role in the economy and strong support for Obama. The continued support of the labor movement is essential if the president is to carry out the bold plans he outlined and if he is to be re-elected.

The president's failure to mention one of the country's most important economic and political institutions was unfortunate. It was perhaps understandable, however, given the anti-union climate stirred up by attacks on public employee unions and their allies.

Obama's failure to mention unions and their leaders was ignored in the post-speech pronouncements of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and other major unionists. They in fact proclaimed the speech a victory because of its endorsement of policies widely supported by labor.

"It was clear throughout the president's speech that the era of the one percent is over," Trumka declared. "We demanded a strong stand on behalf of working families — and the president delivered."

Trumka cited, in particular, Obama's promise to thoroughly investigate "misconduct in the mortgage industry that wrecked our economy," his promise to invest in jobs and infrastructure, and his proposed tax rules that would help the 99 percent.

President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers praised Obama for making it clear "that children and our future must be priorities," and for noting "what America's teachers have long understood. We can't test our way to a middle class, we must educate our way to a middle class."

Praise, too, from President Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers Union. He singled out Obama's promise to work "to bring manufacturing back to America." Gerard said, "The president's commitment to discourage job outsourcing and promote insourcing is a ticket to a better economy." It was most welcome news, added Trumka, to the millions of Americans who are unemployed.

President Gerald McEntee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees described the president's speech as "a comprehensive plan to move our country forward, bolster job creation and find real solutions for the problems confronting our country."

McEntee noted that "in today's political environment, it takes guts to stand strong with working families — even when we make our voices heard, loud and clear, because the toxic influence of money in politics — which the president spoke out against — is powerful."

So, although Obama made no mention of organized labor in his address, he said much that greatly pleased labor, and made promises to carry out measures high on labor's economic and political agendas.

As the AFL-CIO's Trumka declared, Obama showed he "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." The president, in short, "voiced the aspirations and concerns of those who are too often ignored."

Trumka cited the similarities between Obama's approach and that of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Like the occupiers, the president is "speaking out forcefully against the staggering increase in inequality" between the one percent and the 99 percent. The president's speech, Trumka added, demonstrated "a focus on job creation Republican House and Senate leaders should follow."

It's clear, certainly, that as long as Obama continues on his current path, he'll have strong labor support. But should he stray, it's clear that labor will forcefully remind him of his promises and of the needs of those who work for a living — or who are attempting to work for a living.

Whatever Obama does is certain to be in startling contrast to his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, one of the most virulently anti-labor presidents in U.S. history. Obama has already rescinded several of Bush's executive orders that limited the union rights of some workers and has replaced openly anti-labor Bush appointees to labor-related federal agencies, boards and commissions with his openly pro-labor appointees, including Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

Imagine Bush, or any of his GOP allies, actually saying, as Obama did, that "we need to level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests because we know you cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement."

Important words. But they need to be heard — and acted on — by the millions of Americans who know little or nothing of unions and their important position in our economic and political lives.

President Obama failed to take advantage of a great opportunity to explain the true nature of unions and their importance to the country-at-large and make clear the often vicious anti-unionism of his political enemies. He missed a chance to explain the crucial role labor is certain to play in attempts to carry out essential reforms.

Obama needed to speak out forcefully to try to counter the anti-unionism that is limiting the chances of many Americans to find decent jobs at decent pay and a strong voice in workplace and community matters.

Obama missed an important opportunity. But if he stays true to his promises, the president will have plenty of other chances to show the country the true nature of the labor movement and its opponents, to speak out in favor of unions and the importance of their members, leaders and supporters, and to carry out his proposed and much needed reforms designed to help the nation's working people.

Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website,


  1. Chuck Becker February 8, 2012

    When you choose to speak for me and you both, you obviously don’t need to have a conversation. If you keep lowering the bar, eventually you’ll be able to step over it. Thanks, Harvey, for the chance to ignore your monologue.

  2. Harvey Reading February 7, 2012

    So, Chuck, as with your apologetics for U.S. imperialism — perhaps not surprising for someone who spent all that time providing overseas material support for the Department of War — nothing you write can be taken seriously. And, your condescension is typical of those who speak from memorization of right-wing “talking points”. Middle ground to you means this: those who disagree must step toward the center, then you redraw the midline. Finally, you can be all ears, all nose, all mouth, call for civil dialogue, and ignore whatever you choose to ignore, for all I care. Just bear in mind, you do not set the rules for me. Oh, by the way, Chuck, I was a public employee for almost as long as you were.

    Now, to your assertion that federal employees have no collective bargaining rights, even if they are members of a union. That is true, but they do have large, and powerful, employee associations that lobby congress on behalf of their memberships.

    At the time I retired, 2002, the federal employees I knew weren’t all that tickled with their “gold-plated” health plans. Those who were married to state employees dropped their federal coverage in favor of the better coverage provided by their state-employed spouses. Of course, “gold plated” is exactly that: gold plate, underneath which is usually found base metal.

    Your assertion that public employees are bargaining against taxpayers who have no voice or recourse is ludicrous. Anything arising out of collective bargaining negotiations must be approved by the legislature and the governor in the form of the budget act, you know, where appropriations are made. Those people are elected by the public to (theoretically) carry out its wishes.

    The first sentence of your last paragraph is gibberish. The first part makes sense. You ran a ship for the war department, so of course you spent a lot of time away from home. That was your choice, not anything forced upon you.

    Your assertion that public employees get back ten times what they pay in taxes is nonsensical. They are not getting back anything. They are being compensated for their time spent working, generally at a lower pay rate than their counterparts in private businesses.

    Naw, Chuck, I don’t believe for a second that you have any use for collective bargaining or unions at all, whether employees are working for kaputalists or the public at large. It’s just that now, private industry unions are barely – if at all, given that government has been taking the side of kaputalist management for decades now, starting with enactment of Taft-Hartley, through the auto company bailout, to the present – recovering from the beating they’ve taken for the last 40-plus years (often with complicity of their own leaders), so it’s become de rigueur to pick on public employees in a right-wing attempt to end this worker rights business once and for all.

    One more thing, Chuck. I have no interest in “dialogue” with you. There are plenty of brainwashed blowhards locally if I wanted that. If you comment here on something that matters to me, I will give my opinion, as long as I am able, and as long as the commenting policy at what truly is the last newspaper around remains as it is now.

  3. Chuck Becker February 6, 2012

    As a retired union federal employee, that’s pretty much exactly what I’m saying. Federal GS workers (and most other “mainline” federal employees) have NO COLLECTIVE BARGAINING RIGHTS, and they are NOT hurting: (most degreed and skilled labor jobs start at GS-7 and ramp up pretty quickly to GS 11-12-13).

    Not to mention 2-4 weeks of paid vacation per year, flex work hours, gold-plated healthcare benefits, and a retirement system that is the three best systems in the US: a) a defined benefit plan, b) an employer matching tax-deferred individual retirement account, and c) Social Security.

    Private sector employees are bargaining against capitalists who can compete on an equal footing. Public sector employees are bargaining against the taxpayer, who has no options and no escape. Your point that government employees pay taxes is laughable, they GET BACK 10X what they pay in.

    There is a reasonable middle ground between no union protections, and abusive union power being directed against the taxpayer. A middle ground, Harvey, that you not only have demonstrated so little knowledge of, but would seem to reflexively reject even if you were familiar with it.

    I worked 300 days a year for 40 years, and never slept a night at home while I was working, providing those services the public so wants, don’t bother lecturing me about things you have no knowledge of. If you have a substantial response to offer, I’m all ears and I’ll be happy to engage in a civil dialogue. If the best you have to offer is an eruption of spleen, expect me to ignore it.

  4. Harvey Reading February 6, 2012

    So, Chuck, are you saying in your roundabout way that public employees should not have the same rights as other skilled workers? You might bear in mind that public employees pay taxes, too, and they are generally paid less, even when benefits are counted, for comparable work than in the private sector. Maybe you’d prefer to get rid of Civil Service and go back to the spoils system. Guys like you always forget that public employees exist only because the public wants public services.

  5. Chuck Becker February 5, 2012

    There’s a lot to be said about labor-capital relations, the labor movement, and unions in the United States that isn’t often said. I spent my 40 year working career being represented by and dealing with union labor. This is not a “black and white” issue.

    The situation of government employee unions is fundamentally different from that of private sector unions. In the private sector, Capital is on one side and Labor is on the other side. In government service, the Taxpayers are on one side and the Unions are on the other. In the private sector, the Capital side stands to make a profit, or withdraw their capital at will. In the government sector, the Taxpayers stand only to pay taxes (they, not labor, pay for any benefits they receive), and cannot withdraw their participation.

    Just my $.02, so there you go.

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