President Barack Obama defended his record on helping U.S. workers in a speech to the AFL-CIO convention amid signs of discontent with his labor policies among union leaders and rank-and-file members.
Obama yesterday told the largest U.S. labor organization that his administration has worked to lower unemployment, lift the manufacturing sector and lower taxes for middle-class families. Since the financial crisis, U.S. businesses have created 7 million jobs and the automobile industry is leading a comeback of the nation’s manufacturing sector, he said.
“We’re not yet where we need to be,” Obama said. “Middle-class families deserve to feel more secure.”
Originally scheduled to appear in person at the convention in Los Angeles, which runs through tomorrow, Obama canceled because of the crisis in Syria. Instead, he delivered brief remarks that were replayed for the 1,650 delegates and guests on large screens in the city’s convention center.
Labor leaders are questioning whether Obama has done enough to reverse restrictions on workers’ ability to organize and bargain collectively and arguing that the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment, may prompt employers to cut back on full-time jobs. They’re also voicing concern that the economic recovery has been too slow.
During the president’s remarks, delegates responded politely, though applause was sparse. The labor federation endorsed Obama’s re-election last year.
Carlos Pelayo, a union organizer from California was not impressed. Pelayo, 59, who works with the San Diego Day Laborers and Housekeepers Association, said Obama has failed to deliver on critical issues for workers.
“It was a very guarded statement,” Pelayo, 59, said in an interview. “He didn’t specifically say he was going to support raising the minimum wage. He needs to be very specific and be committal, not rhetorical.”
The convention is taking place as the U.S. labor movement struggles with declining membership and legislative attacks on workers rights. One resolution adopted by delegates backs a labor-law reform bill to answer “employers’ increasingly sophisticated and well-funded evasion of the intent of the original act to redress ‘inequality of bargaining power.’”
“All of them, all of us can do more,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an interview, referring to Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress.
“I would always like to see him do more in supporting working families,” Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 1.6 million members, said in a press briefing.
Unions represented 11.3 percent of workers in 2012, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. In Wisconsin, labor advocates calling themselves the Solidarity Singers have been coming to the Capitol in Madison nearly every weekday since the state’s Republican Governor Scott Walker curbed collective-bargaining rights for public unions in 2011.
Labor groups that worked to get Democratic voters to the polls, were key to Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, according to Gary Chaison, a labor-law professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. There’s an expectation that those efforts will be rewarded, he said.
“Labor’s main concern is not that he hasn’t accomplished much, but that he doesn’t appear to be fighting for much,” ’ Chaison said in a telephone interview. “After the last election where much of it had to do with the union doing their ground game, getting out the vote, they thought they’d be rewarded mightily.”
Obama echoed a theme sounded earlier in the day by Trumka when he said that wages are failing to keep pace with inflation. He claimed credit for filling empty seats on the National Labor Relations Board, a move he said will help workers organize into unions. A standoff with Republicans over the constitutionality of his appointees to the board was resolved in July when the Senate approved new nominees.
“We’re a better country than one where those at the top do better year after year while everyone else works harder and harder just to get by,” Obama said.
Obama’s success with the labor board doesn’t overcome his failure to push for the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill sponsored by the late Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts that would have made it easier for employees to form or join unions, according to Pelayo.
“We expected he would have tried to promote this,” Pelayo said. “We would have liked to have seen this on the top of the agenda and it wasn’t. It’s gone.”
The convention approved a resolution, supported by Trumka, to expand relationships with non-union groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women, which often share the AFL-CIO’s goals. The resolution, aimed at beefing up membership in the federation, calls for exploring “new forms of membership and representation.”
Three unions, the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE, have written to Congress calling for changes in the Affordable Care Act. They are concerned that the law creates an incentive for employers to offer workers less than 30 hours a week to avoid having to provide coverage.
The letter “is a sign that union officials are becoming increasingly anxious as they learn more about the meaning of the health care law,” Paul Kersey, director of labor policy for the Illinois Policy Institute, said on the group’s website.
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