Tuesday 25 November 2008
by: Ben Smith, The Politico
After actively campaigning for Obama, union members await a decision on who will be the next Labor secretary. (Photo: Matt Rourke / AP)
The markets rose on the news of Barack Obama's economic policy team Monday, but some labor spirits fell.
Obama's team of treasury secretary and four top economic advisers, introduced as the hands that will steer America's economy, had no particular ties to the labor movement. And Obama's secretary of labor was not introduced as part of that team - a suggestion that that post will retain its second-tier status and quiet voice in matters central to economic policy.
"I wish that [the secretary of labor] would have been among them," former Michigan congressman David Bonior, a labor stalwart and member of Obama's transition team, said of the group at the Chicago press conference. "I hope they take that job seriously."
Labor's low profile in Obama's transition is striking because of unions' vital role in the general election campaign. While Wall Street split its contributions between Obama and John McCain, labor, after dividing its efforts in the Democratic primary, united behind the Democrat and emerged as by far the strongest outside force in the general election. Unions reportedly spent well over $100 million communicating with their members and other voters. The Service Employees International Union alone spent more than $30 million on an independent campaign for Obama, while many of the AFL-CIO unions played key roles in overcoming potential prejudice among their older, white members.
"You can make the case that Obama wouldn't have won without the labor movement - troops, money, key states," said the executive director of the pro-union Labor Research Association, Jonathan Tasini, reflecting a widespread view in the labor ranks. "But when it comes down to it, they don't have the kind of juice to say, 'This is how we want the economic team to look.'"
That doesn't mean labor has no agenda in the transition. They're expecting a pro-union labor secretary - a shift from Bush's low-profile Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who was often at odds with organized labor. (Chao is best known as the answer to a trivia question: Who is the only Bush cabinet secretary who will have served all eight years?) Labor is also focused on the job of United States Trade Representative. And they're debating how hard to push Obama on the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make organizing easier.
Some unions are pushing former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt for labor secretary, though his lobbying and his staunch skepticism of trade may disqualify him; Bonior is backing a lesser-known union operative, Mary Beth Maxwell. Some unions are pushing Leo Hindery, a left-leaning business executive and donor, as trade representative, though many in labor expect Obama to choose a former Clinton Administration technocrat, Lael Brainard, who has pushed for more enforcement of trade agreements.
In maneuvering for the top job, the labor movement is crippled by its internal split. Though leaders would like a pro-labor figure with national stature in the job - "someone with the stature to get into Larry Summers' face," Tasini said - the leading candidates seem to have been disqualified. Bonior and SEIU President Andy Stern have taken themselves out of the running. Other large figures are deeply rooted in the feuding sides - the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. Richard Trumka, who played a key role in selling Obama to AFL unions, is the federation's secretary-treasurer; SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, who was the face of the service unions' pro-Obama efforts in the general election, is the chair of Change to Win.
"If we believe this election was about rebuilding the middle class and reclaiming the American Dream, the next secretary of labor should be somebody who is passionate about workers and the issues confronting a 21st century workforce," Burger said in an email.
Labor leaders on both sides of the divide said they expect Obama to choose a neutral, like Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who would be a high-profile friend of labor, if an outsider. They're also hopeful that Obama will pick a trade representative who has committed to introducing enforceable labor standards into trade deals.
"If it's Sebelius, [union leaders] will pretend to be pleased, but they will simultaneously be disappointed," said Clete Daniel, a labor historian at Cornell University, who pointed out that she's a relative outsider from a state whose "right-to-work" laws make union organizing harder. (She has, however, generally backed a labor agenda in Kansas.)
Daniel noted that the power of the position had risen and ebbed since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's high-profile labor secretary, Frances Perkins, reaching lows of obscurity in Republican administrations, and perhaps its highest modern point under Jimmy Carter, whose labor secretary, Ray Marshall, was a well-connected union figure and an important inside player.
President Clinton's first secretary of labor, Robert Reich, battled Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin for restrictions on trade and additional government spending, but lost.
"Whoever is selected will have a stature not unlike that of Reich, which is a position of secondary influence," said Daniel.
Unions are also debating what they will ask of the labor secretary. Some have suggested pushing Obama to institute a long list of rule changes and to push hard for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would change the rules in organizing campaigns to favor unions. In a September memo leaked to Politico, John Wilhelm, a close Obama ally who is co-president of Unite HERE, argued that they should eschew specific demands and instead push Obama for key appointments and his bully pulpit.
"We should have only one demand of an Obama administration: that the President of the United States publicly, repeatedly, and strenuously advocate that workers have unions, because unions are necessary to build a good America; that he apply that advocacy to specific worker fights and not just general statements; and that he put people on the [National Labor Relations Board] and in his cabinet who share that view and are committed to implementing it," Wilhelm wrote.
And labor leaders continue to hope that unions have earned themselves a meaningful voice in Obama's administration.
"In this kind of environment, with the economy we have, I think this will be a big job," said Tom Balanoff, the president of SEIU Local 1 in Illinois and an old Obama ally. "I'm sure he'll pick somebody who understands that that's a job to promote the interests of labor or workers."