Union reactions to Obama’s Chamber Speech

by Mike Elk

Mike Elk

Many in the labor movement objected to President Barack Obama speaking at the Chamber of Commerce this week. Yet there was little protest from AFL-CIO leaders to the president’s speech.

For the first time, President Obama ventured over to the Chamber of Commerce to speak. While the speech was full of the usual platitudes of most Obama speeches, what mattered most was not what he said, but the speech’s symbolism. By speaking at the Chamber, President Obama was offering an olive branch to the very organization that has led attacks against him.

The president defended some of his regulatory agenda and tax policies. He also called on CEOs to create more jobs in America. But he made no mention of the Chamber’s tolerance of union busting policies that lead to nearly 30,000 reported cases of unfair labor practices against U.S. workers by companies every year.

The symbolism of the speech upset many in the labor community. Ralph Nader wrote an open letter to the President suggesting “What about walking next door and visiting your political friends at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, whose member unions represent millions of working Americans? You can discuss with Richard Trumka, a former coal miner and the new president of the AFL-CIO, your campaign promises in 2008. Repeatedly you said to the American people that you supported the “card check” and a “federal minimum wage of $9.50 in 2011.”

The AFL CIO neither organized a protest of the president’s speech nor extended an invitation for the president to cross the street and speak at the AFL CIO headquarters (where Obama has never given a speech).

Two unions—the National Nurses Union/California Nurse Association (CNA) and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), though, did organize a protest of the president’s speech at the Chamber. Both unions, it should be noted, have traditionally been more politically independent of the Democratic Party. Both unions endorsed Ralph Nader in his 2000 presidential run (At that time the CNA hadn’t merged with other unions).

The AFL CIO refused requests to endorse the protest. Still, 75 union members and allies picketed the president’s speech, chanting “Hey Hey, Hoo Hoo, Union Busting Got To Go”! One labor union member, who wished to remain anonymous, told me afterward that “I feel like by protesting today, we at least salvaged the dignity of the labor movement.”

Following his mantra “The President doesn’t communicate well with me in the press,” AFL-CIO President Trumka refused to denounce President Obama in remarks on MSNBC. In fact, Trumka disagreed with IAM (machinists union) President Thomas Buffenbarger‘s remark that “this isn’t a truce with business. I think he capitulated.” Instead, Trumka defended the president’s speech. He also praised the selection of former JPMorgan Chase Director William Daley as Chief of Staff, suggesting his selection might make things better for organized labor.

Why is organized labor’s top leader so unwilling to criticize the Chamber of Commerce appearance?

One CNA official told me that the AFL CIO was hesitant to protest the Chamber as a result of their rare joint statement last month in which they endorsed increased spending on infrastructure program. The AFL CIO, it seems, is hoping that by teaming up with the Chamber, it has a better chance of seeing Congress pass funding to keep its members employed and its unions financially solvent and vibrant.

But I can’t help worrying that by teaming up with the Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO is undermining energy the labor movement needs to win the war against the country’s business class.

Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Huffington Post, Alternet, Truthout, and Talking Union.
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2 Responses

  1. The President has to talk to everybody. He can not let the right wing radio talking heads speak for him. It would be nice if he had more leverage on the Chamber of Commerce but that time is past. They have become so diversified that many have little reason to care what happens to average working Americans or any Americans for that matter. They only need to keep the “marketplace” open to the whole world in order to succeed and the President believes he needs to do the same thing. So why should they hire American?

  2. Interesting post from In These Times.
    There are a number of problems with this post. One, you cite Ralph Nader as a source for union divisions. Well, in case you missed it- Ralph Nader is not a union voice. Please look at Nader’s role in the 2000 election. And, Nader suggests that Obama stop by the AFL-CIO on the way the Chamber talk. Well, he did. I guess Nader missed it.

    You say that Obama has never talked at the AFL-CIO headquarters. That is deceptive. He has talked at the AFL-CIO annual conferences ( often in Bell Harbor) and at the conventions of many of the AFL-CIO unions.
    I recommend this piece on In These Times

    http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/6857/beyond_barack_obama/

    The author, Richard Flacks says,
    “Lefty focusing on Obama distracts us from the work we need to do.
    What progressives have to try is to implement strategies that directly challenge corporate and financial domination. These have to include direct action that disrupts the institutional order. One essential theme: The costs and burdens of economic contraction and austerity must not be borne by the weakest and poorest.”
    Lefty focusing on Obama also distracts us from the work we need to do resisting the Republican onslaught from Washington to the states fostered by, and advanced, by the Republican victories in November. These victories were produced in part by some Lefties focusing on Obama.
    Currently we have 15 million unemployed and another 10 million underemployed. The unemployment rate among African Americans is over 15%. Cut backs in state and local governments are making the unemployment worse. See the AFL-CIO States of Denial site. http://blog.aflcio.org/2011/02/09/states-of-denial-tracks-state-lawmakers-attacks-on-workers/
    We need to create full employment. That promise is a good job for all, the opportunity to have a rewarding career, and the chance for a good education. The tax and budget cut mania does not promote good jobs, rewarding careers. It only digs the hole deeper.
    See my post here “An Open Letter to Governor Brown “ http://www.blogger.com/posts.g?blogID=11455634 providing a list of revenue sources to allow California to grow needed jobs. And the post in on Talking Union.
    You can’t cut your way out of the recession. Cutting jobs makes the recession worse. Just look at the current situation of Ireland and Great Britain. You can see what a budget cut approach produces- stagnation.
    Writing zinger on-line attacks proclaiming a split in labor and denouncing Richard Trumka are not a part of a progressive response. Obama is moving right because the Republicans won the election. Our task is to oppose the Republicans and the move to the right.
    A more useful essay would be how to build a union movement and opposition to the conservative agenda in the Obama Administration. See my letter response to the prior post on creating 15 million jobs for the economics of this issue.
    To date the left has failed to articulate a reasonable explanation of the economic crisis. The Right and the Tea Party have a narrative. Their narrative appeals to angry old white people. If that is your target audience your essay serves well.
    A more useful effort is to capture public spaces in the media to explain to working people how this economy works and how and why they are being exploited. That would build toward an opposition.

    Duane Campbell is a second generation union activist. He is a former member of the United Auto Workes, UAW, the International Association of Machinists ( IAM), the American Federation of Teachers, a volunteer for the United Farmworkers, and now is retired from the California Faculty Association. ( a member of SEIU and the NEA).

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