CHICAGO – The right to unionize must be part of a “new social compact” that reduces income inequality and restores hope, President Barack Obama says.
That right was one of several ways to help the nation continue to move forward, Obama told tens of thousands of people gathered in Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center for his farewell address, after eight years in the Oval Office.
The Chicago speech is not the first time Obama endorsed the right to unionize, free of employer harassment, intimidation, interference and labor law-breaking. He also did so on the campaign trail while seeking re-election in 2012, and at the AFL-CIO Convention in 2009, after his first election. He won both with organized labor’s strong support.
But union leaders said, privately and sometimes publically, that Obama never followed through by pushing the cause, labor’s top legislative goal. In his Chicago speech, the president is leaving the task for achieving workers’ rights to the future. But he said it must be done.
“Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class, and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class,” the president explained.
“That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind.
“The laid-off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills. Convinced that the game is fixed against them. That their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.
“Now there’re no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.
“And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need. To give workers the power to unionize for better wages. To update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now,” he said, interrupted by cheers and applause.
“And make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and the individuals who reap the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible.
“We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come,” he stated.