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As Obama Picks Up Union Endorsements, a Debate on Labor’s Role in 2012 Campaign

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We host a debate on Big Labor’s endorsement of President Obama’s re-election between labor reporter Mike Elk and Arthur Cheliotes, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1180, a union that has pledged support of President Obama. This week the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor organization, endorsed Obama following earlier statements of support from several unions, including the Service Employees International Union; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; and the Communications Workers of America. “Despite the talk of political independence that many in organized labor have been talking about for the last year, organized labor is still stuck in this Stockholm Syndrome of President Obama,” Elk argues. “We live in this real world. It’s not a theoretical world. And we don’t have the luxury of standing on the sidelines,” Cheliotes counters. “We have to engage.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama’s re-election campaign received a major boost this week with the endorsement from the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation. In a statement, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, quote, “With our endorsement today, we affirm our faith in him—and pledge to work with him through the election and his second term to restore fairness, security and shared prosperity.” The AFL-CIO joins a number of number of other prominent unions backing Obama, including the Service Employees International Union; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the AFT; and the Communications Workers of America.

While the endorsements don’t come as a surprise, they have touched off a debate within some of the labor movement on the role labor unions should play in electoral politics. The unions opted to endorse Obama at an early stage in his re-election bid despite grievances over a number of issues, including his handling of the job crisis, his educational policies, the abandonment of the Employee Free Choice Act, and his selection of General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt to chair the President’s jobs council.

We’re joined now by two guests. Here in our New York studio is Arthur Cheliotes, president of Local 1180 of the Communications Workers of America, a union that has endorsed President Obama. And joining us in Washington, D.C., is Mike Elk, staff writer for the magazine In These Times_. His latest endorsement/”>piece is titled “Not All Labor Leaders Happy with AFL-CIO’s Obama Endorsement.”

Welcome to you, both. And Arthur, start with you. The early endorsement of President Obama, what it means, and why you believe it was necessary to do so?

ARTHUR CHELIOTES: Look at the choices. We live in an alleged democracy, but basically we have two choices to make. And there is no doubt that Barack Obama is the better choice. And so, we have to—we live in this real world. It’s not a theoretical world. And we don’t have the luxury of standing on the sidelines. We have to engage. And given these choices, it is clearly for Barack Obama, for what he’s done, the appointments that he’s made, the difference he’s made to the National Labor Relations Board, the economic recovery, the $7.8 billion that he put into the Recovery Act. All of these things make it clear that, given the alternative that the Republicans are offering—I mean, they want a theocracy, it seems. It’s crazy. And so, we made the obvious choice.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Elk, you’re a labor journalist. Why are you so critical of this decision?

MIKE ELK: Well, first, let me point out something. In my article, I quoted the president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, who was critical of the AFL-CIO’s very, very early endorsement of President Obama, about six months before the even Democratic National Convention. And just to give you an idea of how much organized labor doesn’t want this to be talked about, Donna Dewitt, the president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, was called by a top AFL-CIO official and reminded that the AFL-CIO funds her, and they don’t expect this kind of behavior. It was an implicit threat, because this is an embarrassing subject for organized labor to talk about.

You know, despite the talk of political independence that many in organized labor have been talking about for the last year, organized labor is still stuck in this Stockholm Syndrome of President Obama. Sure, it’s one thing to, you know, vote against Romney. It’s another to say, as Richard Trumka did, that Obama has been fighting aggressively for workers and unions. Let’s look at the last month alone. Obama has passed three very anti-worker measures. Let’s look at one. He passed an anti-union FAA bill, which, Arthur, your own president, Larry Cohen, described as making the rights of airline workers to unionize worse than it ever was. Union rights for airline workers are now worse than they were under Bush. And this is the only piece—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to—Mike, I want to interrupt for one minute, because we actually have the clip of Larry Cohen and wanted to get Arthur to respond.


AMY GOODMAN: Larry Cohen, the president of CWA, blasting these controversial provisions in the FAA reauthorization bill that make it harder for airline and railroad workers to form unions. Cohen was speaking in early February. President Obama signed the bill two weeks later.

LARRY COHEN: It means that, by statute, workers that are gone forever, 10 years, 20 years, it could be anything. Employer puts them on the list. You need a majority of the whole list, so you don’t even get an election. And the one provision, the one advancement since the 2008 elections that we have, the only advancement in the entire country, as we’re under attack every minute? That’s a rule. That’s not even in this statute. The leadership in the Senate didn’t even see fit to include in this gutting of the statute the rule that Delta is objecting to in the first place, the rule that says, oh, it’s a majority of those voting, not a majority of the whole electorate—if you can get to an election. So they’ve changed the rules to get to an election. You now need 50 percent of the so-called electorate. But our one little crumb of an advancement is left as a rule. So the day there’s ever a Republican president elected—and there’s now two Republicans and one Democrat—they’re going to strip the rule. The statue will remain. It’s worse than it’s ever been.

AMY GOODMAN: Larry Cohen, president of Communications Workers of America. Arthur Cheliotes is president of Local 1180 of CWA here in New York. Your response?

ARTHUR CHELIOTES: I was at that conference were Larry gave that speech, and we lobbied hard at the Congress to see if we could get the Senate to not make those changes. It was attached to the FAA funding bill, which would have crippled the FAA. And we tried to speak to our senators to have them understand how important this was, because it was Obama’s appointees to the National Mediation Board that changed the rule and said, no, it’s wrong that when you go to an election in a—under the Railway Labor Act, that you’re required to have a majority of all the workers in the organization, not just a majority of those voting. And they changed that. And the reaction of the industry was to work with the Republicans in the Senate and attach this to this important funding bill. And so, it was held hostage. And yes, the President had to make a decision: is this something worth shutting down the FAA over? And he made the decision to sign it. Difficult decision, but not for his lack of trying. The blame there rests clearly with the Senate.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Mike Elk, what about the—what Arthur Cheliotes raised at the beginning: there simply is no choice, that the—any one of the Republican candidates are far worse on issues of labor than President Obama is?

MIKE ELK: [inaudible] agree that that’s true. But here’s the issue. Why are we endorsing six months early? Look what happened at CWA after they endorsed. Obama signed a bill rolling back their organizing rights. That happened a few days after Obama—CWA endorsed Obama.

I think the issue here is we’ve got to be honest with our members. And I think sort of the glossing over that Richard Trumka and other leaders of the labor movement does really hurts the credibility of labor leaders. I mean, why should labor leaders stake their credibility on calling Obama a saint to their members, when Obama never stakes his credibility on labor leaders?

I mean, look at Obama. You know, look at—something happened during the CWA strike. Verizon was trying to cut the healthcare benefits of workers, and they were saying they had to do it because of Obamacare. Now, at the time, I talked to the White House, and I said, “Are you guys going to make a statement that this isn’t the intention of Obamacare, for private companies to use it to call for massive healthcare concessions?” And the White House wouldn’t say anything.

The President has never given a single major speech on the topic of improving collective bargaining rights in this country. Indeed, he’s given speeches like he did at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2009 blasting the rights of teachers’ unions. I mean, the only time in the recent State of the Union that President Obama mentioned unions was when he praised them for giving massive concessions, like the auto workers did or like the teachers’ unions did.

Sure, Obama might have created more jobs, but that’s a temporary band-aid. Unless we improve the ability of organized labor to collectively bargain, we’re never going to improve wages and really improve this economy. And President Obama, in my opinion, hasn’t done much, if anything, to help that, and, in many cases, has worked against workers’ rights to collectively bargain. I mean, here was a president who pledged that if workers’ rights were ever under threat, he would get on a picket line. He pledged that he would do this as president. But yet, when Honeywell workers were locked out last year in southern Illinois, President Obama flew to India with the CEO of Honeywell, while those workers were locked out, and never, despite me calling them dozens of times, ever made a statement about this incident.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Arthur Cheliotes, I’d like to ask you about another aspect of this that doesn’t get much attention: the impact of the Citizens United case on the ability of labor unions to be involved in presidential campaigns, because not only did Citizens United allow millionaires and billionaires to contribute so much more money to these—to these interest groups now, but it also has freed labor unions to devote much more of their resources to political campaigns. Is that some of the reason why, I guess, the Obama administration and then the unions felt it was necessary to get in early on this campaign in terms of flexing the muscle of the labor movement?

ARTHUR CHELIOTES: I suppose you could say it would be one of the reasons. But I think we also need to understand that in this world of competing media markets, that what I think the Obama campaign is always looking for is something to counter what’s always in front of people these days, which is the Republican primaries. And what is really going on here is trying to edge out a little bit of space in the media over the—over the road show that is the Republican primary. And an endorsement from the AFL-CIO is a story that will run for a week or so. It will create the kind of controversy that we’re discussing here right now, but will keep Obama’s name in the forefront. I mean, he has a lot of power being the president, to begin with, but I think it’s part of the overall media strategy that you see at play in keeping people’s attention on your candidate, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: But to do it so early means that you are not making demands of President Obama that he has to meet certain goals in order for the AFL or SEIU to endorse. Both did.

ARTHUR CHELIOTES: I suppose you could say that. But then, if you look what was achievable, certainly the Employee Free Choice Act couldn’t get through Congress, and we took action there. We opposed some senators that had primaries coming up. They eventually lost to Republicans, unfortunately, which made it a tougher vote against labor on a whole host of other issues. So how do we deal with these things, in terms of the political realities of the nation we live in?

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to President Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, comments he made last August about President Obama.

RICHARD TRUMKA: I think he made a strategic mistake when he confused job crisis with the deficit crisis a number of months ago, when he would talk about job creation and in the same sentence talk about deficit reduction, and people got the two confused. And he helped with that. And I think that was a strategic mistake. And he started playing on the Republican ground of deficit reduction. Look, we don’t have a short-term deficit crisis. It does not exist. We have a short-term jobs crisis. And if you fix the job crisis, the deficit crisis goes away.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Mike Elk, what about those comments of Richard Trumka? And also, the allegations by some folks that in the huge labor battle in Wisconsin, President Obama was MIA?

MIKE ELK: Yeah. Well, this is what I’m talking about. Organized labor leaders last year were saying, you know, pretty critical things of President Obama. Now Trumka turned around this week and said Obama has been fighting aggressively for workers’ rights, health and safety in their jobs. And now he comes back, and, you know, it really hurts the credibility of labor leaders with their members. And if you want, you know, members to fight for their unions, to potentially, in an organizing drive, risk getting fired or, in a strike, risk losing their home, you have to have credibility, you have to be honest with them. So I think it really hurts the credibility when labor leaders say one thing in an off election year and another thing in an election year.

About Wisconsin, now this is an interesting situation. AFSCME, the largest public employees union in the country, has pledged to spend $100 million re-electing President Obama. Yet, in the state of Wisconsin, you know, Wisconsin membership, since the Walker bill has taken effect, the amount of members contributing dues has dropped by almost two-thirds. But yet, in Wisconsin, they’re laying off organizers, when they need to be rehiring organizers. And instead, that money is being poured into re-electing President Obama. Now I think it’s a big, huge strategic mistake that President Obama has never made a single major speech on the issue of workers’ rights. Sure, he can’t pass workers’ rights provisions through the Senate. But like climate change and immigration, where he both gave major speeches, he could say something.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Elk, we’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us, of In These Times, labor journalist, and Arthur Cheliotes, president of Local 1180, Communications Workers of America, part of the AFL-CIO, which endorsed early President Obama.

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