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August 16, 2011 5:00 PM Anti-union folks ‘have amnesia’

By Steve Benen

This may be familiar ground, but I was glad to see President Obama deliver an impassioned, impromptu defense of labor unions in Iowa.

A retired high school teacher noted that union benefits have increasingly been under attack. The president agreed.

“[L]et’s make one thing clear. The right of workers to come together and join a union is part of what built America’s middle class. It’s the reason why we’ve got a minimum wage. It’s the reason why folks have weekends. It’s the reason why you have basic protections on the job from an abusive employer.

“There are a whole range of things that people take for granted, even if they’re not in a union, that they wouldn’t have had if it had not been for collective bargaining. So I think it is very important, whether you are in a union or not — and I speak particularly to young people, because you’ve grown up at a time when in a lot of circles ‘union’ somehow is a dirty word — to understand all this is is people joining together so they’ve got a little more leverage; so they’ve got better working conditions, better wages; they can better support their family.

“And a lot of us entered into the middle class because our parent or a grandparent was in a union. Remember that. When I hear this kind of anti-union rhetoric and anti-union assaults, I’m thinking these folks have amnesia. They don’t remember that that helped build our middle class and strengthen our economy.”

The president added that much of the trouble when it comes to assaults on collective bargaining are happening at the state level, where the administration’s influence is limited, but Obama noted the recent FAA dispute with House Republicans. “[W]e’re fighting back,” he said, “pushing back against these efforts to diminish the capacity to exercise their basic freedoms and their basic rights.”

Like I said, this isn’t exactly new, but labor too often gets the short shrift in the larger political discussion. Hearing the president offer a full-throated defense of unions as part of his Midwest tour was heartening.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • stevio on August 16, 2011 5:03 PM:

    Too bad he didn't have this "voice" prior to the recall elections in Wisconsin, or even during that epic struggle. He;s becoming more of an opportunist now that his ass is on the line for re-election. Nauseating...

  • xando foote on August 16, 2011 5:25 PM:

    It is good to see Mr. Obama overtly support unions and encourage his base. It is yet another sign that he is taking stronger stances and defining his intentions as we head into the 2012 elections.

    Enough of attempting to reach across the aisle only to be rebuffed and insulted by a group of radical and childish GOP reps in Congress and the partisan and petulant GOP leadership.

  • Lolis on August 16, 2011 5:30 PM:

    @stevio,

    What the manic progressives don't get is that activists on the ground don't want the president to get involved in local issues because it needlessly polarizes something without having a substantial benefit. For example, the Obama campaign to repeal Kasich's anti-collective bargaining law is trying very hard to be non-partisan so it appeals to Independents and Republicans. Grassroots campaigns do not need or want the president sticking his nose in.

  • stormskies on August 16, 2011 5:33 PM:

    Any non-rich American who is 'anti-union' is simply fucking stupid. But that, sadly, is the majority of Americans. This is just about identical to the stupid Americans who held up those signs during the Affordable Health Care process that said 'keep government away from my Medicare' ... it is this same level of abject stupidity that is responsible for exactly the situation we are now because of electing the Repiglicans back into power in the last election, this happening just 18 months after those same Repiglicans destroyed our and the world's economy. And, even now, with the entire corporate=Repiglican effort to destroy Obama and take our country with it over 45 percent of our population will still vote Repiglican. We are, indeed, the United Stupid America.

    USA ! USA ! USA !

  • stormskies on August 16, 2011 5:36 PM:

    meanwhile we have this ...........


    August 16, 2011 12:00 PM

    CBS Story Pushes Unpaid Internships Without Noting How They're Illegally Used As Free Labor Pool

    By Susie Madrak

    CBS' Sunday Morning, a show that used to have at least a veneer of social conscience, ran a "free market" biased piece on unpaid internships this week. Among the things they didn't mention: That unpaid internships are frequently illegal (and why), that schools actually charge the students for the academic credit (so you're not only working for free, you're paying for the privilege), and that we're seeing even more of a class stratification in influential fields like the media and public policy, because poor and working class kids can't really afford to take those high-status internships.

    Maybe that's why one of the CBS interns who worked on the piece (for a $50 a week stipend - barely enough to cover subway fare) had this to say: "I was really surprised by the fact that so many people are against internships being unpaid. There were a lot of people that I found who were like, 'It's illegal. It's unfair.' I was so surprised that so many people were saying that," Berg said.

    But instead, the piece turns into a bootstrap lecture where if you "think big" and "have the guts to start from the bottom," you can work for free, become a consultant and live happily ever after!

    Ladies and gentlemen, your librul media!

    Asked if interns are getting a raw deal, he told Smith, "Absolutely they're getting a raw deal, and they don't even know it."

    Eisenbrey is vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit Washington think tank. Unpaid internships, he says, are taking paid jobs away from people who need them.

    "This is a concern that economists have: 'Why isn't business hiring people?'" he asked. "Well, if they can have people work for free why should they hire anyone? And in fact, I'd say, you know, if they could get them to work 60 or 70 hours a week without paying them, so much the better. They don't have to pay them overtime, I mean, where does this stop?"

    And there's another problem, Eisenbrey says increasingly the top internships are going to kids from the top of the income ladder. "Who can afford to come to Washington and spend $4,000 on housing and food and then work without being paid? It is not the children of farm workers or factory workers or, you know, the children of people who are unemployed right now. It's going to be upper middle class kids," he explained.

    "Sunday Morning" intern Erika Mahoney agrees. Like all 75 summer interns at CBS, she receives a $50 per week stipend.

    "My parents are helping me out a lot. And, you know, it's hard to think about that because I have friends who wouldn't be able to do something like this. And so, you know, every day I call my parents and I tell them everything about my day because I know that, like, that's how I can show my appreciation," she told Smith.

    "You seem to feel a little guilty about this," Smith asked.

    "I do," Mahoney admitted.

    "What's wrong with workin' for free? If a kid says, 'I want to do it, I want the experience,' what's wrong with that?" Smith asked.

    "Well, you could say that. And if they could persuade people to work for half of the minimum wage, if they could get adults to work for free for six months, not just young people, then why not, what's wrong with that?" Eisenbrey replied. "Well, it degrades the entire value of work. And that's actually going on in our society."

    But in this economy, some people would rather work for nothing than not work at all, and it's not only kids. After 10 years fundraising for various non-profit groups in Knoxville, Tenn., Kristina Shands found herself suddenly unemployed.

    "It literally was within 15 minutes: I had no job, I had no health insurance, I had nothing," she remembered.

    A life-long hockey fan, she took a bold step and at age 38 talked her way into an un-paid internship with a minor league hockey team, The Knoxville Ice Bears.

    "I just started working the games, press releases, post-game summaries, helping with promotions and marketing and did that for the entire 2009-2010 season," Shands explained. "It was strange at times. I mean I'm working with 20 year olds, and I'm almost twice their age."

    But it worked: That unpaid intern, is now a paid media consultant. "You gotta be able to think big and then have the guts to kind of start from the bottom and figure it all out. And maybe you'll hit the jackpot like I did," Shands said.

    And if you don't? If your unemployment runs out, you have no health insurance and you can't pay your rent, I guess you just don't know how to "think big."

  • John B. on August 16, 2011 6:52 PM:

    It should be especially galling to O that it is his refusal to endorse Medicare for All that allows Verizon to trash labor's benefits. Yet he won't do anything but grumble. Talk is cheap. I'll believe Obama gives a shit when I see him on the picket line or clapping the VZ CEO and board in jail.

  • Andy Olsen on August 16, 2011 7:11 PM:

    Going to have to disagree with you there, Steve. This is too new. With the exception of Wisconsin and other state-level Dems, initiatives from Democrats in support of labor and Labor have been too few, especially since campaign season.

    This is a real good sign and we'd all benefit from a lot more such messaging from the bully pulpit. (Bully bully!)

    There are folks in Wisconsin who have been waiting for the President to put on his walking shoes and join the movement. He is welcome to Wisconsin any time!

  • ORgone on August 16, 2011 7:15 PM:

    The problem that I have with this speech is that he is talking about Unions in the past tense.

  • Andy Olsen on August 16, 2011 7:20 PM:

    Sadly, the President goes on to endorse even more pay cuts to public employees in the form of "pension reform." i.e., cuts in take home pay.

    http://mobile.salon.com/opinion/walsh/politics/2011/08/16/obama_on_unions/

    That is definitely not going to go over well in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Public employees have been sacrificing for years. This year's rounds of sacrifices are just more. He should recognize that and not encourage more.

    Perhaps I missed his calls for Wall Street to sacrifice? Or maybe the indictments of the Wall Street perp's who put us in this situation? I guess that's "looking backwards." All the DC insiders want the little people to sacrifice and "shared sacrifice" means 10x from the working people what the wealthy sacrifice.

    I better leave it at that.

  • Steve Jung on August 16, 2011 7:35 PM:

    I'd feel better about this if the President actually spoke out in favor of any particular employees getting a raw deal, whether it was the Boston Hyatt maids getting their jobs taken away (doesn't he know Penny Pritzker), or the Los Angeles BMW employees getting their distribution jobs taken away, or any of another myriad of examples. Somehow his pledge about joining workers on the picket lines never was honored.

  • Karen Tuerk on August 16, 2011 7:43 PM:

    Unfortunately that is only the first half of the speech before he went into how public sector workers need to "share in the sacrifice" and come to the table to negotiate. What he does not address is that is EXACTLY what we are fighting for here in WI and around the country! We are being cut out of the negotiations and stripped of our voice! Read the WHOLE response here: http://mobile.salon.com/opinion/walsh/politics/2011/08/16/obama_on_unions/

  • Doug on August 16, 2011 7:44 PM:

    Andy Olsen, the President was being specific to his topic. He was speaking about "unions" and their effects on economic conditions for ALL workers, NOT Wall Street financiers. Reading the transcript, I see nothing that suggests the President wants only "the little people to sacrifice". I DID see where he said that members of public service unions needed to keep in mind how it looks if their contract demands remain the same, regardless of economic conditions. On other words, appearances matter.
    Even the author of the article admitted that her views on the speech changed when SHE read the transcript...

  • Karen Tuerk on August 16, 2011 7:45 PM:

    Unfortunately that is only the first half of the speech before he went into how public sector workers need to "share in the sacrifice" and come to the table to negotiate. What he does not address is that is EXACTLY what we are fighting for here in WI and around the country! We are being cut out of the negotiations and stripped of our voice! Read the WHOLE response here: http://mobile.salon.com/opinion/walsh/politics/2011/08/16/obama_on_unions/

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  • Spring Texas on August 17, 2011 9:46 AM:

    I get very DISheartened when people are still heartened because Obama SAYS the right thing.

    He doesn't mean it, and it's definitely a "fool me once,shame on you; fool me twice, shame on you" sort of situation.

    I like Steve Benen; but -- Shame on you, Steve Benen, for falling for this repeated crap. Obama is in no way pro-worker and wants to gut public employee benefits, pay and retirement, and apparently from yesterday's news stories, the same for the military. Disgraceful. He's just flat a liar and doesn't mean a word he says.

    We'd have been better off with McCain, as incredible as that is. Same amount of war and less of this quite radical take-it-out-of-the-hide-of-the-common-people stuff. And with McCain Democrats in Congress would be strongly opposing this garbage. Probably fewer immigrants deported. Yes McCain would have been horrible. But Obama is himself horrible, and no amount of words change that or do anything but sicken.

  • Anonymous on August 17, 2011 11:38 AM:

    "Shame on you, Steve Benen, for falling for this repeated crap."

    Steve Benen hasn't "fallen" for anything. It is plain that he's running a prop-blog for Obama, routinely commenting on the good stuff, ignoring critics on the left, and on rare occasions mendaciously suggesting he's been 'as critical of Obama as anyone.'

    As if... The irony is that he could have done the White House a much bigger favor if from the start he had objected as strenuously to the Plouffe-Daley mush-mouthed "centrist" crap as he does to the right-wing insanity. To the extent his commentary influences anyone, it might have helped to prevent some very wrong-headed Plouffian misreadings of the public mood and some serious strategic missteps by the White House.

    As in days of old under Stalin, one doesn't come to Washington-Monthly-dot-com to read the truth; one comes here to read what the narcissists in charge (that is, the White House) would like to read: their very own views, reflected as in a mirror.

  • Tom B on August 19, 2011 9:09 PM:

    Didn't we hear most of this same rhetoric during the campaign? Not too sure hearing it all again means much.

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