For Labor Day yesterday, President Obama gave a speech in Toledo, Ohio in which he highlighted his Administration’s strong support for labor unions and the right of working people to collectively bargain over their wages, benefits, and working conditions. Echoing similar sentiments that he voiced on Labor Day in 2011, President Obama yesterday explained that:
It’s working folks like you who fought for jobs and opportunity for generations of American workers. It’s working people like you who helped to lay the cornerstones of middle-class security, things that people now sometimes take for granted, but weren’t always there — the 40-hour workweek, weekends, paid leave, pensions, the minimum wage, health care, Social Security, Medicare. Those things happened because working people organized and mobilized.
It is unions like yours that helped to forge the basic bargain of this country — the bargain that built the greatest middle class and the most prosperous country and the most prosperous economy that the world has ever known. (Applause.)
And you know what that bargain is, because it’s a simple one. It’s a bargain that says if you work hard, if you’re responsible, then your work should be rewarded. (Applause.) That if you put in enough effort, you should be able to find a job that pays the bills. You should afford a home to call your own. That you’ll have health care you can count on if you get sick. That you can put away enough to retire, maybe take a vacation once in a while — nothing fancy, but you can enjoy your friends and your family. And, most importantly, that you can provide your children with an education to make sure that they do even better than you did.
There can be little dispute that the labor unions that President Obama rightfully praised yesterday have been struggling for the past few decades, as lax enforcement of labor laws, Mitt Romney-style outsourcing and downsizing, and attacks on public sector employees have led to a significant decline in the proportion of the US workforce that is unionized. And the Obama Administration has not been able to magically restore labor to the vibrant movement it used to be, and that it needs to be once again in order for to rebuild the secure middle class that brought our nation such great economic vitality. But President Obama’s leadership has significantly benefited the labor movement in at least two critical ways.
Rescuing the US Auto Industry
The first area where the Obama Administration has been of great benefit to organized labor is the rescue of the heavily-unionized U.S. auto industry. When President Obama took office in January 2009, the U.S. auto industry (along with most of the rest of our economy) was in free fall. More than 400,000 auto industry jobs had been lost in the previous year and at least two of the Big 3 – GM and Chrysler – were on the brink of running out of money. In October 2008, President W. Bush, after initial opposition, directed $17.4 billion of the Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to bridge loans for GM and Chrysler. But far more action was needed and soon after taking office, President Obama offered the two auto companies substantial additional loans in exchange for agreeing to fundamentally restructure their businesses. Through such restructuring, all of the relevant stakeholders – workers, creditors, shareholders, and executives – made significant sacrifices.
Both companies have emerged from the process and are now thriving again. More than 1 million jobs, many of them unionized, were saved due to the rescue, and the auto industry has added 200,000 jobs since June 2009. All of the Big 3 were profitable in 2011 for the first time in seven years, and GM and Chrysler’s sales increased 14 and 26 percent, respectively, last year. As the companies have recovered, the United Auto Workers union has negotiated bonuses, improved profit sharing, wage increases for entry-level workers, preservation of health care and pension benefits for auto industry workers, and increased investment in US auto facilities. The up to $7,500 profit-sharing bonuses that the UAW negotiated for each of its 46,000 General Motors employees are the first bonuses that GM has paid to its workers since 2004, and the influx of money from profit sharing at all of the Big Three automakers has been credited with helping Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana have some of the strongest economic recoveries in the nation since 2009.
Without the auto industry rescue, US automakers would have almost certainly have disappeared, taking hundreds of thousands of unionized jobs with them. Instead, thanks to the Obama Administration, those automakers are thriving, as are the unionized workers whose jobs were saved.
A Functioning, Labor-Friendly NLRB
A second area where the Obama Administration has supported the rights of workers to collectively bargain is in making sure that the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has a labor-friendly majority and enough members to legally operate. The NLRB is a federal agency charged with protecting the rights of workers to organize and decide whether to have union representation, overseeing union elections, and preventing unfair labor practices. Throughout 2008, the NLRB operated with only two out of its five positions filled – one of the board members was a Democrat and one was a Republican. That condition continued throughout President Obama’s first year in office, as Senate Republicans made clear that they intended to filibuster just about anyone who President Obama would nominate.
The presence of only two members on the NLRB effectively neutered the Board’s power in controversial cases, as it meant that the Board could act only if both members agreed in a case. Then, in 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled that the NLRB had to have at least three members in order to have the quorum needed to legally act. Without three members, the NLRB would, in essence, have to close its doors. As a result, Senate Republicans continued to filibuster President Obama’s nominees to the NLRB in an effort to make the agency meaningless.
In response, President Obama made recess appointments (which do not need Senate approval) of two Democrats – Craig Becker and Mark Pearce – to the NLRB in March 2010. Becker’s appointment was especially encouraging for labor supporters, as Becker’s previous employment had included being Associate General Counsel to the AFL-CIO and SEIU. Due to retirements and Senate Republican obstructionism, the NLRB started 2012 once again with only two members. Facing continued GOP intransigence, President Obama made three additional recess appointments, thereby guaranteeing that the NLRB could function and have a Democratic majority, throughout 2012.
President Obama’s efforts to keep the NLRB open with a functioning quorum has paid off, as the Board has issued a number of rulings that should make it easier for employees to form unions if they wish to do so. For example:
* The Board ruled that employers must post an 11 by 17 inch poster informing employees of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
* The Board has established procedures to speed up the time in which a union election is held after a request for unionization is made. This rule is designed to limit the ability of employers to delay elections in order to buy more time to undermine a union organizing effort. Studies show that unions win 87% of elections held within 15 days of a request, but only 58% of elections held 36 to 40 days after the request.
* The Board gave workers additional leeway to form their own collective-bargaining groups so that, for example, if all of the nursing assistants in a nursing home wanted to unionize, they could do so without their employer being able to put other groups of employees, such as maintenance workers or dietary aides at the nursing home, into that collective-bargaining unit.
* The Board re-established a long-standing precedent, which has been reversed by the W. Bush Administration NLRB, providing a newly recognized union a reasonable period in which to establish itself at a workplace before any decertification petition could be filed against that union.
Each of these decisions should make it easier for workers to have their voices heard and their right to organize recognized, and none of them would have happened without the Obama Administration fighting to make sure the NLRB has a quorum of board members who believe in enforcing our nation’s labor laws.
Not a Perfect Record, But a Good One On Labor Issues
Progressive critics of the President will note that there was never a major effort by the Administration to get the Employee Free Choice Act (“EFCA”) or similar labor priorities passed. But the lack of a fight for EFCA was due far more to the fact that the GOP would have filibustered EFCA, and that a number of Democratic Senators – including Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson, Thomas Carper, and Arlen Specter – refused to vote to overcome that filibuster, than it was to any purported lack of support from President Obama. And on issues that our President could control – the auto industry rescue and the NLRB – he stepped up for policies that would preserve and strengthen the ability of workers throughout our country to organize and collectively bargain over their wages, benefits, and working conditions. By contrast, GOP attacks on the NLRB, public employee unions, the auto industry rescue, and even the Post Office shows that a Romney/Ryan Administration would almost certainly have labor unions right in their cross-hairs. As with most issues, the choice is clear between a President and political party who care about the rights of workers, and the GOP’s agenda of destroying unions as fast as they can.