Union Leaders React Positively, Mostly To President’s Address

Union leaders reacted positively to Democratic President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, but they threw in some dissenting notes.

For example, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the address extremely effective and praised its emphasis on jobs – and then said Obama omitted the best way to create well-paying jobs: Strengthening collective bargaining rights.

And Thea Lee, the fed’s deputy chief of staff and longtime top economist, slammed Obama for his address’ advocacy of “fast-track” trade authority.  Fast track lets Obama push trade treaties through Congress with only up-or-down votes, no amendments, little debate and no worker rights.

In his speech, Obama asked Congress to help workers and the middle class, but also said he would take executive action to do so, where he could, if Congress refuses.  That drew high praise from Steelworkers President Leo Gerard.

“His speech laid a roadmap for results and made clear that he will not wait for Republicans to stop protecting the top 1% while everyone else suffers,” Gerard said.

One example of not waiting, Obama told lawmakers, is a forthcoming executive order telling future federal contractors – who hire workers for fast food courts and as janitors in federal facilities and to fix runways on military bases or to help clean up in VA hospitals – that they must pay at least $10.10 an hour to get those pacts.

He then used that as a jumping-off point to urge lawmakers to pass legislation raising the minimum wage nationwide, from its present $7.25 hourly, to $10.10, by 2016, and index it to inflation thereafter.  The GOP-run House defeated that last year.

Excerpts of several union leaders’ reaction to the speech:

Trumka, in one of a series of tweets: “Best SOTU to date for Barack Obama.  All the right points to lift up middle class but one: Collective bargaining.”

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, in a tweet: “Energy independence (is) laudable, but how about making sure energy jobs are GOOD jobs with living wages.” (Her emphasis).  And in a second tweet: “Youth unemployment rates are double the national average.  Training opportunities are important, but what are we doing to create good jobs?”

Lee’s tweet: “Same old robotic rhetoric and free trade clichés.  ‘New trade partnerships with Asia and Europe’ NOT the key to job creation.”

The Steelworkers’ Gerard: “President Obama made it clear that promoting economic growth and making sure that everyone shares in it is his top priority…The president turned the nation’s economy in the right direction with no help from the Republicans.  The economic and financial collapse brought on by the excesses of the Bush administration has taken years to reverse.  During his time, the president helped create a new framework for financial regulation and put health insurance within everyone’s reach.  The seeds of recovery have been sown, but much work remains. Ensuring growth and making sure that everyone can share in it is far from certain.

“President Obama also made it clear that revitalizing growth in manufacturing is fundamental for a strong economy.  While progress has been made under his administration, we are still suffering the effects of the loss of more than 5 million manufacturing jobs and the closing of 60,000 manufacturing facilities.  We must ensure that reviving the manufacturing sector must be a top economic priority because absent this, there is no long-term hope of creating the opportunities that middle-class Americans want and deserve.”

“The president admitted he previously had more faith in Congress’ willingness to do what is right, but partisan gridlock robbed America of jobs and economic opportunities.  President Obama will work with Congress when he can, but he cannot sit on his hands waiting for them to act: One hand holds a pen, the other grips a phone to promote whatever possible positive steps.”

ATU President Larry Hanley praised “President Obama’s call for an agenda to create opportunity for all.  Action to reduce income inequality and give all citizens an equal chance to pursue the American Dream is long overdue.”

One key way to do that, Hanley said, is to invest in public transportation.  Obama called for more infrastructure investment, but did not mention transit.

“Our country continues to be a nation of two classes — the privileged few and the rest of us — bus drivers, hotel workers, school teachers, fire fighters, and working families,” Hanley continued.  “It’s time for Republican leaders in Congress to get serious about shared sacrifice by requiring Wall Street and the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes.

“Working people are losing faith in America as a land of opportunity.  While we praise the president for increasing the minimum wage for employees under federal contracts, it’s time to raise living standards for all workers.”

Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan said lawmakers should heed the president’s request to approve a long-term highway-mass transit construction law.

“It’s time for Congress to move forward before our nation’s Highway Trust Fund runs out of gas,” O’Sullivan said.  “Passing a new long-term bill, for at least six years, could save hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.  Adjusting user fees for inflation, along with new bipartisan proposals for infrastructure banks and loan guarantees to develop more public-private partnerships, will help reduce a deficit that is expected to reach $15 billion this year alone.  These new investments in rebuilding America’s roads and bridges will create family-supporting jobs that help more working families earn their way into the middle class,” he added.

AFSCME President Lee Saunders called Obama’s speech “a comprehensive plan” to “create jobs and meaningful economic opportunity.”  After praising Obama’s executive order to help the low-wage federal contract workers, Saunders challenged lawmakers to agree with Obama on the minimum wage hike “so all Americans may live and prosper, not live in poverty.  We hope Congress will work with the president to take other steps to address the growing income inequality that hampers meaningful economic recovery.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten said Obama’s “forward-seeking agenda… combats economic inequality with real and practical solutions that raise people up — not deepen wealth divisions.”  Those solutions, she added, included “increasing the minimum wage and  putting Americans back to work in good jobs with family friendly policies like paid sick leave, expanding early childhood education, making college affordable, and creating a new retirement savings program.”  She also thanked the president for honoring teachers, which “highlights the importance of educators and schools in helping our children achieve their dreams.   We cannot rest until we fully re-establish the steps on the ladder to opportunity and give working families a shot at the American dream.”

Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry lauded Obama’s attack on rising income inequality, his wage hike for the contract workers and his advocacy for the minimum wage increase.  “We need to end the new ‘normal’ of workers stringing together low-wage jobs with no benefits that can’t support a family.  As President Obama said, ‘the best measure of opportunity is access to a good job,’” she said.

That job must include stronger workers’ rights, she added.

“Also of critical importance to achieving shared prosperity is action on common-sense immigration reform.  The time is now — actually, it’s past due.  Both sides need to come together to pass immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship and we urge the president to keep the pressure on.”