WASHINGTON (PAI) – Union leaders gave President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address generally positive reviews, but sounded negative notes against his call for fast-track authority to put in place what they consider job-losing “free trade” pacts.
The president spent more than half his speech on the economy, shifting from the U.S. recovery – on his watch – from the Great Recession to further measures that he demands Congress pass to help reverse the 30-year erosion of working class wages and living standards.
Those measures include taxing the rich and big banks, infrastructure investment, greater emphasis on education, free community college tuition, and more. All drew the union leaders’ praise. He also included a call for the passage of a stronger labor law.
“President Obama accomplished a lot this past year,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said. “But that’s not enough. After all, while President Obama is hard at work preparing his biggest speech of the year, most families are hard at work stretching their budgets to make ends meet. Working people want to hear not only what he thinks about raising wages, but what he’ll do about it. That is the ultimate standard of accountability.”
National Nurses United Co-President Karen Higgins hailed Obama’s call for business tax reform, and used it to again push the “Robin Hood tax” on financial transactions. The tax would raise “hundreds of billions in new revenue every year to provide a critical lifeline for improving the health and safety of people in the U.S. and across the globe,” to “pay for the unfinished job of healthcare for all in the U.S.,” she said. NNU said the tax would also curb the financial finagling that brought on the Great Recession.
Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers, praised the president for calling on lawmakers to address income inequality. He also noted that the president recognized the value unions add to our economy “by inviting one of our own – LIUNA Local 300 member LeDaya Epps – to be Michelle Obama’s guest to highlight the training and apprenticeship programs of LIUNA and other construction unions.”
Veronica Mendez, director of Minneapolis’ Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha/ Center of Workers United in Struggle, also attended. She was hosted by Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.
Government Employees President J. David Cox praised Obama’s proposals to aid the middle-class and urged him not to forget federal workers when he does. “Like so many others, federal employees have faced stagnant wages, cuts in benefits, and reduced take-home pay,” Cox said. “They must not be left behind.
“AFGE strongly supports legislation introduced to provide federal employees with a 3.8 percent pay raise next year. Federal employees have seen their standard of living deteriorate thanks to a three-year pay freeze, unpaid furloughs, and higher retirement contributions for newer workers.
“For years, federal employees have been bearing the brunt of policies that put slashing the deficit ahead of creating new jobs, and lost $159 billion in earnings because of it. A 3.8 percent increase would provide employees with their first meaningful raise this decade.”
Service Employees Executive Vice President Rocio Saenz drew the sharpest political contrast between Obama and the GOP – especially on immigration. The GOP-run House passed yet another anti-immigrant bill in the first weeks of January. Saenz added a political warning:
“While the president has led us to major milestones, there is still much to achieve to strengthen and improve the lives of millions of working families,” Saenz said. “From raising the minimum wage to equal pay, there are significant issues Congress needs to tackle for the good of the people, not the politics of skewed partisanship. We hope this new Republican Congress can work together with the president…2016 is not far, and there are many listening and watching – old, new and aspiring Americans – ready to deliver their own promise.”
Teachers President Randi Weingarten praised Obama’s plans for paid parental leave and making education more affordable. “Working families see the economy is getting better, but too many have yet to feel it. That must change,” she said. “We need to ensure all families can climb the ladder of opportunity. To do that, we need our government to reinvest in public education and support our educators. The tools the president advanced – providing free community college and greater access to early childhood education, raising the minimum wage, offering child care and paid sick leave to parents – all will help if they are enacted.
Steel Workers President Leo Gerard said that “on taxes, education, infrastructure and other issues President Obama identified concrete steps he will pursue to revitalize America. The USW agrees with the president’s vision on the vast majority of what he outlined. When it comes to trade, however, we respectfully and regrettably disagree. Simply, USW members, their families and their communities had to pay the price for past trade deals and today’s outdated policies.”
Communications Workers President Larry Cohen also said he was in support of the president overall but took issue with the “fast track” process and the president’s support of the Trans Pacific Partnership. “It has much more to do with protecting the investmnent of multinational corporations and manevering around China,” he said, “thant lowering trade barriers. Promoters of the TPP are again promising jobs gains through growth in U.S. exports. But we can do the Math. Any new jobs will be dwarded by the floof of jobs that go offshore.”