The year in headlines: High hopes at start, roadblocks at end

WASHINGTON (PAI) — It was a year that started with such high hopes for workers and their unions — and ended in roadblocks and looming disappointment.

For unions, 2009, even with the Great Recession underway, began well.

A pro-worker Democrat, and nation’s first African American president, Barack Obama, whose overwhelming electoral vote win owed a lot to organized labor and allies, took over the White House from the most evil anti-worker president in at least a century. Obama was accompanied by a large House Democratic majority and a not-quite-filibuster-proof Senate Democratic majority.

Key worker causes appeared within reach. Those included universal affordable health care — with competition for the insurance companies and their high overhead and denial of care — and the Employee Free Choice Act.

A raft of pro-worker measures were enacted by Congress or promulgated by Obama. They included:

  • passing the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act,
  • extending unpaid family and medical leave to flight attendants,
  • reinstating of Project Labor Agreements on federally funded construction,
  • banning federal contractors from using federal dollars either for or against union organizing,
  • ordering agencies to inform workers of their right to join unions,
  • opening talks to settle the FAA’s Bush-era fight with air traffic controllers.

Obama’s stimulus law, designed to help counteract Bush’s Great Recession, included a “Buy American” provision inserted by the Steelworkers, though Obama got the Senate to weaken it. And pro-worker officials were named to key Labor Department slots, which in turn stepped up its enforcement of job safety and wage laws.

But even in the early glow of Obama’s win — and of his declaration in the White House that unions “are part of the solution” to economic woes — there were signs of future problems and disappointments. And they only got worse as the year wore on.

The Senate Republicans had 40 votes, but the Democrats, for much of the year, didn’t have 60. That meant the GOP could, and did, filibuster literally everything.

The threat forced Obama into compromises on the stimulus law that cut its job creation, principally by cutting its infrastructure section, while adding more business tax breaks. Constant filibusters stalled pro-worker measures and slowed Congress down.

The GOP also pushed Congress into rescuing Wall Street first — a Bush brainstorm Obama continued — ahead of Main Street. By year’s end, with unemployment at 10%, labor and Democratic lawmakers were demanding a second, but unlikely, stimulus focused solely on creating jobs. The GOP response? What else? A filibuster threat.

Health care revision consumed Congress for the entire year, and at the end it looked far different than at the beginning. The pro-worker Senate Health Committee’s bill was trashed in favor of a “moderate” compromise from the Finance Committee.

That compromise lacked the needed cost controls on the insurers, provided by the strong “public option” — the competitor to the private insurance companies. The Finance panel also taxed workers’ health insurance, an idea that survived all the way through Senate bargaining. Over in the House, a more pro-worker bill narrowly passed, after being crippled by a ban on using federal or private funds to pay for abortion.

Both bills were far from what 19 AFL-CIO and Change To Win unions, plus the independent United Electrical Workers, really wanted, especially single-payer government-run health care. That abolishes the private health insurers, their high co-pays and deductibles, dumping of subscribers, denial of care, and 44,780 people dead annually due to lack of insurance, according to Harvard Medical School.

The health care mess and the lack of 60 votes marooned the Employee Free Choice Act, designed to help level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining. Lead Senate sponsor Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who took over from the late and lamented labor champion Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., tried to negotiate a compromise to get the 60 votes, but got diverted by health care. The law’s former lead Senate GOP sponsor, Arlen Specter, switched parties, and abandoned the bill. Obama promised to sign EFCA, but did not make it a political priority.

Popular opinion for workers got downright ugly when Obama stepped in with federal loan guarantees — in exchange for wage and benefit cuts — to help GM and Chrysler survive. Even then, the two car companies went through bankruptcy and thousands of workers lost their jobs. GOP senators openly rooted for the companies, and UAW, to fail. Ford did not take the guarantees, but still cut retiree health care.

There were also changes within the labor movement. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney retired, and was succeeded by Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, who promised a more-muscular response both to business and to politicians — of both parties — who double-cross workers. Two of Change To Win’s seven unions left that federation: the Carpenters and UNITE HERE. UNITE HERE went through a bitter internal battle, which resulted in the union and most of its members and leaders rejoining the AFL-CIO. A smaller group merged into SEIU, a lead member of Change To Win.

And a year that began with high hopes ended with workers fighting fiercely to keep their health insurance from being taxed — amid a deafening silence from the Obama administration. And it ended as it began, with an emphasis on jobs, jobs, jobs. This then, was 2009, as seen through the headlines of Press Associates Union News Service.

Photo: A family of union members from Tennessee and Georgia express the pride, hope and optimism of millions. Teresa Albano/PW