WASHINGTON – When it came time for President Obama to “tweet,” the AFL-CIO had a question ready in advance: “How about jobs?”
But its version didn’t get asked of the chief executive in his first big use of the social medium on July 6. GOP House Speaker John Boehner’s did – prefaced by a political claim, which Obama shrugged off, that Obama’s economic stimulus law failed.
Obama countered by saying he didn’t realize until after several months in office, that the Great Recession was as bad as it was – and that he should have said so then and warned everyone that it would be a long hard slog to get out of the big jobs hole.
Later, he turned to strongly defending workers’ rights to collective bargaining, while admitting he has no influence – other than the bully pulpit – over state action on it.
But much of the tweet – and the plurality of the questions – discussed jobs.
“I think even I did not realize the magnitude, because most economists didn’t realize the magnitude, of the recession until fairly far into it, maybe two or three months into my presidency where we started realizing that we had lost 4 million jobs before I was even sworn in,” Obama said in his first verbal response to a jobs tweet, before a crowd inside the White House.
“And so I think people may not have been prepared for how long this was going to take and why we were going to have to make some very difficult decisions and choices. And I take responsibility for that, because setting people’s expectations is part of how you end up being able to respond well,” the president explained.
The q & a on jobs was the top topic posed to Obama on Twitter, the social medium where one is supposed to communicate in 140-character messages. Some commentators said Obama was using Twitter to go over the heads of the press corps, and to address people who don’t read papers or watch TV but rely on social media.
But the questions were tough and his answers were far longer than tweets – especially the one where he defended collective bargaining rights.
The question, from someone identified as Patrick, was: “Mr. President, in several states we have seen people lose their collective bargaining rights. Do you have a plan to rectify this?”
Patrick was referring to efforts by the right-wing business coalition in Wisconsin, Ohio, Tennessee and elsewhere to kill collective bargaining rights for public workers, such as firefighters, police, teachers, and nurses at state and city hospitals.
“The first thing I want to emphasize is that collective bargaining is the reason why the vast majority of Americans enjoy a minimum wage, enjoy weekends, enjoy overtime. So many things that we take for granted are because workers came together to bargain with their employers,” Obama replied. But then he said workers must sacrifice, too.
“Now, we live in a very competitive society in the 21st century. That means that in the private sector, labor has to take management into account. If labor is making demands that make management broke and they can’t compete, then that doesn’t do anybody any good.
“In the public sector, what is true is that some of the pension plans that have been in place and the health benefits that are in place are so out of proportion with what’s happening in the private sector that a lot of taxpayers start feeling resentful. They say, ‘Well, if I don’t have health care where I only have to pay one dollar for prescription drugs, why is it that the person whose salary I’m paying has a better deal?’ What this means is that all of us are going to have to make some adjustments.
“But the principle of collective bargaining, making sure that people can exercise their rights to be able to join together with other workers and to negotiate and kind of even the bargaining power on either side, that’s something that has to be protected. And we can make these adjustments in a way that are equitable but preserve people’s collective bargaining rights.”
“Challenges against bargaining rights have been taking place at the state level” and “I don’t have direct control over that,” he said. He said he can “speak out forcefully for the principle that we can make these adjustments that are necessary during these difficult fiscal times, but do it in a way that preserves collective bargaining rights.”
Then he said he can – and has – influenced collective bargaining for one group of employees: The 2 million federal workers. I can make sure that we make these adjustments without affecting people’s collective bargaining rights,” Obama declared.
As an example, he told the tweeters, “We froze federal pay for federal workers for two years. Now, that wasn’t real popular, as you might imagine, among federal workers. On the other hand, we were able to do that precisely because we wanted to prevent layoffs and make sure we sent a signal that everybody is going to have to make some sacrifices, including federal workers.”