WASHINGTON – AFL-CIO leaders have told a top aide to Democratic President Barack Obama that the current fight in states over workers’ rights is “a defining moment” Obama must use to discuss the future of the country and of workers.

Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger delivered that message to Obama senior advisor David Plouffe during a March 1 “working lunch” at the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Washington.

Over sandwiches, potato chips, soda and coffee, toted into the council’s meeting room, the union leaders told Plouffe that insistent demands by Govs. Scott Walker, R-Wis., and John Kasich, R-Ohio, to eliminate collective bargaining for state and local workers are similar to Ronald Reagan’s firing of the Air Traffic Controllers 30 years ago.

But while Reagan used PATCO’s strike – over unsafe conditions – as “a signal that union-busting was fine,” Obama “stepped up to the plate with the governors” for union workers, Schaitberger said.

The council told Plouffe to thank Obama for that support, voiced publicly before the governors – minus Walker – and to urge him to continue it. Plouffe promised he would take that message back to the Oval Office.

“I don’t think it does anybody any good when public employees are derogated or vilified and their rights infringed upon,” Obama declared on Feb. 28. “We need to attract the best and the brightest to public service.”  It was Obama’s second highly publicized pro-worker, pro-union statement since the struggle with Walker began.

The council told Plouffe public workers are willing to share in sacrifices to help balance state and local budgets, but that Obama’s aid would be especially important “since the president has the largest and loudest megaphone,” Schaitberger said.

“We told him Reagan changed the direction of the labor movement, and of the country, with the PATCO strike. It was a defining moment and the labor movement blinked,” the Fire Fighters chief added.

“Now we have another defining moment – and we can take hold of it or slide into the abyss,” he warned. Meanwhile, Obama can help “frame and change what’s going forward in the country,” if he speaks up, Schaitberger said.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.