Unions mark gains under Obama

Union leaders and members are saying that eight months into the Obama administration it is clear that labor’s unprecedented investment in the effort to support the election of the president and a 60 vote Democratic majority in the Senate is paying off.

From executive orders that help construction workers to a new law that restores the right to sue employers for pay discrimination based on sex, race, religion or other factors, they are happy about a long list of what they see as first steps that help working men and women.

Having said that they are ready now for what they see as some bigger tasks and challenges.

Unions are pleased with the president’s strong verbal support for their top cause, the Employee Free Choice Act but they want to see that translate into active lobbying by the administration for labor law reform.

Labor is also pushing now for a second massive economic stimulus bill, something the administration is not yet ready to support. The first stimulus bill was too small, according to AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka.

In the area of health care labor and the administration are in agreement, provided the reform undertaken includes a strong government-run public health plan option.

The unions’ original hope to get the Employee Free Choice Act onto the president’s desk by Labor Day faded because of the delay in seating the potential filibuster-breaking 60th Democratic senator, Al Franken of Minnesota, and the explosive debate on health care that followed almost immediately.

An aide to Communications Workers President Larry Cohen, one of a group of labor leaders who met with Obama at the White House in July, said in a phone interview at that time that the president had promised to do “what he could” to pass labor law reform, but was not specific.

American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees President Gerald McEntee said, also that day, “Some people wanted the president to move faster on the bill,” but given the economic crisis Obama faced upon entering office, “I don’t see how he could.”

Opposition by some Blue Dog Democrats and others to the majority sign up provision of the Employee Free Choice Act forced the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to entertain alternative ways of achieving the intent of the provision, with no agreement yet reached.

Outright disagreement between labor and the administration arose on only one issue during the past eight months.

The president plans to cap production of the F-22 fighter plane at the present 187 ordered, not including seven more that many senators, and the Machinists, want at a cost of $1.75 billion. The union is concerned that not building the extra planes will mean layoffs of thousands of union workers.

With the exception of these concerns labor has a great deal of praise for what the president is doing.

“The number one thing he’s done for workers is taking on the economy and being bold with the stimulus package to create jobs for workers,” AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said about the president in a recent telephone interview.

McEntee, who chairs the AFL-CIO Political Committee, played a key role in organizing labor’s election effort for Obama and Congress. “And the fact that the president is willing to take on a number of critical issues, especially health care, is vital,” McEntee adds.

It didn’t hurt his relations with labor when the President invited labor leaders into the White House on July 13 to discuss the Employee Free Choice Act, health care, the economy and pensions or when he signed legislation restoring the right of women and minorities to sue employers for paycheck discrimination.

The president’s record on labor issues is drawing a sharp contrast with the record of his predecessor in that office:

The president has overturned a whole series of Bush anti-worker executive orders, substituting for them his own pro-worker orders: These include restoring project labor agreements on federally funded construction, ordering federal agencies to post notices in workplaces that inform workers of their rights, including the right to join unions, and ending the Bush policy of contracting work out to private companies.

The president has issued another executive order that bans any entity receiving federal funds from using those dollars against union organizing.

The pro-labor tone was set right from the beginning. The first law the Democratic-run Congress passed and Obama signed was the Lily Ledbetter Act, named for an Alabama grandmother who sued Goodyear for pay discrimination based on sex. She had won in lower courts but lost in the Supreme Court, 5-4, in 2007. The justices said suits could not be filed after 180 days on the job.

Ledbetter, a supervisor, had been with Goodyear 19 years before she found out she was the victim of discrimination.

“Wage discrimination has a tangible and negative impact on women and families. When women receive less than their deserved compensation, they take home less for themselves and their loved ones,” the president said when he signed the law.

Posts in the Obama administration have been filled with labor allies. The president nominated incumbent Democrat Wilma Liebman to chair the National labor Relations Board and intends to formally nominate two pro-worker attorneys to be board members.

The president named Jordan Barab, a longtime job safety and health advocate, to be deputy Occupational Safety and Health Administration administrator. Barab intends to revive the agency’s now-dead ergonomics rule and he’s begun work on two important safety rules.

One limits worker exposure to diacetyl, a food additive that causes lung disease.

The other would control explosive, factory floor “combustible dust.” The dust caused a blast at Imperial Sugar in Georgia, killing 14 workers in Feb., 2008. OSHA, under Bush rule, did nothing.

The president has nominated former Airline Pilots Association President Randy Babbitt to head the Federal Aviation Administration. Babbitt has already signaled his desire to sign a new contract with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a contract trashed by the Bush administration.

The president has named former Association of Flight Attendants President Linda Puchala to sit on the National Mediation Board, which oversees labor-management relations in airlines and railroads and has nominated Joe Szabo, the legislative director of the United Transportation Union in Illinois as the first unionist to head the Federal Railroad Administration.

Obama has supported labor backed changes in college student loan availability that eliminate the role of banks as middle men in the system. Together, the administration and labor leaders worked with House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., to introduce legislation that will accomplish this.

The bill caps repayments from graduates at a maximum of 15 percent of yearly income. If a graduate signs up for public service, including police, fire and other public work, the loan is forgiven altogether.

The president has supported the Steelworkers campaign for “green jobs” to revitalize U.S. manufacturing. They are a key part of the $787 billion stimulus package.

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