Anxious labor looks to allies in Obama administration

By Carol Eisenberg

April 5, 2009 at 6:37am

Candidate Barack Obama, a former community organizer who spoke movingly about the struggles of the middle class, received strong support from the United Automobile Workers and other labor unions.

Over the course of the campaign, unions collectively spent more than $100 million to help him and congressional Democrats win election.

But now that he is president, they are looking harder than they might have expected for sympathetic ears. On some issues, Obama has delivered to the rank-and-file, pushing a huge infrastructure-spending program to create or preserve millions of jobs, endorsing a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize and pledging action on health care reform.

But his stern message to Detroit automakers last week to make still deeper cuts, including additional concessions from the UAW, took some labor leaders aback at a time when the UAW, long a symbol of organized labor in this country, is struggling mightily to preserve jobs and benefits.

“It’s the age-old Wall Street vs. Main Street smackdown again,” Brian Fredline, president of UAW Local 602 at a plant near Lansing, told the Associated Press. “You have all kinds of funding available to banks that are apparently too big to fail, but they’re also too big to be responsible.

“But when it comes to auto manufacturing and middle-class jobs and people that don’t matter on Wall Street, there are certainly different standards that we have to meet - higher standards - than the financials. That is a double standard that exists and it’s unfair,” Fredline said.

Some labor leaders trace that disparity to the president’s economic team, which they see as dominated by proteges of former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, who championed balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation - most of whom have personal and professional ties to the banking world.

“Labor is completely underrepresented here both in terms of people and ideology,” Rose Ann DeMoro, head of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, complained about the president’s economic appointments to Bloomberg News late last year.

At a time of continuing economic crisis, how many of Obama’s appointees have ties to labor groups, and how influential are they?

The list of labor-connected appointees includes some biggies: One is Ronald W. Bloom, a member of the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry who is a special assistant to president of the United Steelworkers of America.

Another is White House Political Director Patrick Gaspard, who had been executive vice president for politics and legislation with the Service Employees International Union.

Edward Montgomery, the labor economist recently named Director of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers, has been given a fulltime portfolio to aid displaced workers and reeling communities.

And Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was certainly welcomed by labor leaders as a staunch advocate. She has been a supporter of the so-called card-check bill that makes it easier for workers to organize, and speaks of being raised by parents who were members of the Teamsters and the United Rubber Workers.

Other appointees with direct ties to the labor movement include (in alphabetical order):

  • FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt, a former pilot and aviation consultant who served two terms as president of the Air Line Pilots Association.
  • Assistant Education Secretary Gabriella Gomez, who is a former lobbyist for American Federation of Teachers.
  • Helen R. Kanovsky, named general counsel of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who had worked for the last decade for the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust.
  • Assistant Labor Secretary nominee T. Michael Kerr, who served eight years in Bill Clinton’s Labor Department, also worked for both the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
  • Wilma B. Liebman, chairman designate of the National Labor Relations Board, who has served on the board for more than a decade and who previously worked as counsel to the Bricklayers and Teamsters unions.
  • White House Communications Director Ellen Moran, a well-known grassroots organizer who has led fund-raising drives for the AFL-CIO, and the Democratic National Committeew, and who coordinated the AFL-CIO campaign against Walmart before becoming executive director of Emily’s List.
  • National Mediation Board member nominee Linda A. Puchala, a former international president of the Association of Flight Attendants and staff director of the Michigan State Employees Association.
  • Federal Railroad Administrator nominee Joseph C. Szabo, who had been Illinois state legislative director of the United Transportation Union.
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