Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Barack Obama and the labour movement

[updated] - In January, the Wall Street Journal claimed that unions are “the single-strongest force in elections, outside of the presidential candidates and the national parties”. Hundreds of thousands of union volunteers have helped mobilise voters and have likely made a significant contribution to Barack Obama’s victory.
Today, confederation AFL-CIO quotes a survey indicating that unions have successfully reached out to their members, “with more than 80 percent receiving union mail, more than 80 percent receiving union publications, 59 percent getting live phone calls and 32 percent getting worksite fliers”. The SEIU also emphasised the crucial role unions have played in the election.
Unions seem to have been successful at gaining support for Obama among groups that would normally tend to vote Republican. Obama won among white men who are union members by 18 percentage points, while losing white male votes overall by 16 points. He won among union gun owners by a 12-point margin while losing to gun owners in the general population by 25 points.
Last Sunday, Politico reported on the role unions have played confronting racism among parts of the white electorate. “The older, largely industrial unions, members of the AFL-CIO, have emerged as key ambassadors for Obama to the parts of the country where he is weakest. Those unions have, in the recent past, been dismissed by Democrats as fading powers – good for turning up some burly, white ethnic workers at campaign rallies, but shrinking and demoralized, and without the energy or organization of growing unions like the Service Employees International Union. But for the first black nominee, white labour has proved a crucial bulwark of support”.
A month ago, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka took a strong stand against racism in a speech at the United Steelworkers’ national convention. “The discussion Trumka opened has taken place in conversations between shop stewards and rank and file members, and in large-scale internal union campaigns”, Politico wrote.
“Many voters have never voted for an African-American candidate for any position” AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman told Politico. “It's a proud moment in the labour moment in the last six months that there really has been discussion from the union presidents to local union officials to shop stewards on the floor”.
An important objective of the union movement was to create support in the Senate for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). The EFCA is to protect workers who organise against employer intimidation, which should make it easier for unions to organise more workplaces. The aim was to obtain a 60/40 ‘filibuster proof’ Democratic majority in the Senate. While the Democrats have strengthened their position in the Senate, it seems unlikely that they will actually obtain a 60/40 majority.
The Associated Press predicts that ‘Obama’s reputation as a conciliator [...] will be sorely tested’ by the EFCA, which will meet with fierce opposition from business lobby groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce. The Wall Street Journal predicts a 'landmark battle with business' but also suggests that unions may settle for a compromise.
Meanwhile, unions are already planning to organise new sectors if the EFCA should pass; for example, hospitals in Chicago. Other targets may include FedEx and union-hostile retail giant Wal-Mart, Reuters suggests. Look here and scroll down to see what Obama himself says about his labour agenda.
Labourstart’s Eric Lee says that much will depend on whether Obama ‘will emulate Clinton's failure or Roosevelt's success’. President Clinton tried to reform health care and failed, and did close to nothing to strengthen the role of unions. President Roosevelt introduced new labour legislation, the National Labour Relations Act (NLRA). “The significance of the NLRA was that it lead to a massive growth of industrial unions. Those unions provided the foundation for the New Deal coalition that dominated American politics for nearly a half century”, Lee argues (through Stronger Unions).
Global Union UNI has been emphasising the international significance of the American election. In a statement, UNI General Secretary Philip Jennings today announces that it will ‘meet with representatives of the new Obama transition team to exchange ideas on how to build a new, more responsible globalization’. PSI General Secretary Peter Waldorff also stressed the international significance of the outcome: “Global warming, the breakdown of the financial system, the fight against poverty, wars and humanitarian disasters – all need to be dealt with by an American administration with a much broader vision than the current one”. British union Unite said that Obama's victory shows Europeans that there is an alternative to neoliberalism.
Photo Casie Yoder / AFL-CIO

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