Only a year ago, despite a super recession that had tightened its grip on their country, American workers were full of hope that a new day had dawned.
Twelve months later they are taking stock of many gains even as they dig in their heels for what has become a protracted battle to fix the economic calamity left by the Bush administration.
The year started with the nation’s first African American president, backed by the labor movement, replacing the most anti-worker president in perhaps 100 years.
Barack Obama arrived in the nation’s capital with a large Democratic majority in the House and a big, although not filibuster-proof, majority in the Senate.
George Bush and his big business backers had driven the economy into the worst economic crash since the Great Depression. Labor unions, their allies and many of the Democrats in Congress began pushing programs designed to end the recession and, in mid-winter, some of their most important goals seemed within reach. These included universal health care and the Employee Free Choice Act, a law that would make it easier to expand the ranks of the labor movement.
One by one, in some cases as new laws passed by Congress and in others as executive orders signed by President Obama, pro-worker measures were enacted.
They included the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, inclusion of flight attendants under the protection of the Family and Medical leave Act, the re-instatement of Project Labor Agreements on federally funded construction projects, rules that forbid contractors from using federal funds against union organizing, rules that require agencies to inform workers of their union organizing rights and the opening of talks to end the Bush administration’s attack on the Air Traffic Controllers.
The president won passage of a massive economic stimulus package that almost all economists credit with having saved many jobs that otherwise would have been lost in the Great Recession.
The new president invited union leaders into the White House where he told them that unions were not part of the problem but “part of the solution.”
Even with these changes, however, there were early signals that disappointments were on the horizon and that it would take a major struggle to ensure that the gains made would be consolidated.
Republicans in the Senate had 40 votes but the Democrats never really had the 60 they could count on to prevent filibusters.
That problem forced the Obama administration to compromise on its first major domestic effort, a massive stimulus package. The compromise resulted in a watered-down version of the jobs creation part of the stimulus package, particularly the part that was meant to rebuild the nation’s tattered infrastructure. Republicans were also able to divert some of the job creation effort into tax breaks for businesses.
Another part of the problem with the economic measures taken was the strategic decision, pushed first by the GOP but then supported by many Democratic lawmakers, to bail out Wall Street before bailing out Main Street.
As the Obama administration, the labor movement and all its allies struggled to solve problems on numerous fronts the unemployment rate continued to soar into the double digits. As 2009 draws to a close and the New Year approaches the labor movement, and its progressive allies, some Democratic lawmakers among them, are demanding a second stimulus package. Only this time they want the focus to be jobs, especially the millions of green jobs needed to meet immediate infrastructure needs and to rebuild the nation’s manufacturing base
Predictably, the response from the GOP is “no.” Obstructing progress, as usual, they are claiming that jobs programs are unaffordable and that they will add to the deficit. Labor, with the backing of reputable economists, is arguing that government spending is needed now to boost the economy and lay the groundwork for long-term deficit reduction.
On health care, meanwhile, the bill finally approved by the Senate, historic as it is for the curbs it places on the insurance companies, looks much different than what the labor movement had hoped for in the beginning of the year. In the Senate, the progressive version passed earlier in the year by the Senate’s Health Committee was scuttled in favor of the less comprehensive reform bill put forward by the Finance Committee.
The labor movement finds itself fighting, as we close out 2009, for more cost control measures to be added to the bill – measures that would have been provided by a strong public option. Labor is also opposing the portion of the bill that taxes workers’ health insurance.
GOP delaying tactics on passage of health care reform also combined with the lack of 60 sure votes to break Republican filibusters to hold up passage, this year, of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining.
The lead Senate sponsor of the EFCA, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who took over that role from the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., attempted to negotiate a compromise to get the 60 votes but ended up having to focus on health care, instead.
The labor movement has made it clear, however, that it intends to fight like never before to ensure that the changes it won this year will be added to next year and that it intends to remain a powerful force in American politics.
That was the message that came out of the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh last fall. The federation elected its Secretary-Treasurer, Richard Trumka as its new president to replace John Sweeney, who retired.
Trumka is backing ongoing efforts to re-unite the nation’s two labor federations, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, and he has served notice that politicians in both parties who double-cross the labor movement will, in 2010, face working-class voters ready and able to turn them out of office. He is saying that from now on no lawmaker will be able to take labor’s support for granted.
When it comes to ending the recession, the federation says, all politicians will be judged in 2010 on how well they address what labor sees as the top priority for the new year -the creation of the millions of good-paying jobs needed to guarantee that everyone in the nation who wants a job will have a job.