Obama On Unions at Iowa Town Hall: A Mixed Bag
At a town hall meeting in Decorah, Iowa, President Obama answered this question from a teacher:
Q Many unions, especially public sector unions, helped you get elected in 2008. Those public sector unions and their members gained their salaries and benefits through collective bargaining. Recently, those benefits have been under attack. And I realize that this is a state issue mostly, but what can you do to help support collective bargaining in the states and, most of all, support the public sector unions, the middle class, many of whom are union members? Thank you. (Applause.)
His answer was typical of the mixed bag he typically offers on labor issues. On the one hand, there was the strong general support for union rights:
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, let’s make one thing clear. The right of workers to come together and join a union is part of what built America’s middle class. It’s the reason why we’ve got a minimum wage. (Applause.) It’s the reason why folks have weekends. It’s the reason why you have basic protections on the job from an abusive employer.
There are a whole range of things that people take for granted, even if they’re not in a union, that they wouldn’t have had if it had not been for collective bargaining. (Applause.) So I think it is very important, whether you are in a union or not -- and I speak particularly to young people, because you’ve grown up at a time when in a lot of circles “union” somehow is a dirty word -- to understand all this is is people joining together so they’ve got a little more leverage; so they’ve got better working conditions, better wages; they can better support their family.
He even went on to pin the FAA shutdown on the Republican anti-union agenda, something he had avoided doing during the shutdown.
On the other hand:
I do say, though, to my friends in the public sector unions that it is important that you are on the side of reform where reform is needed. Because the truth of the matter is, is that at a time when everybody is belt-tightening, there is nothing wrong with a union saying to itself, you know what, we know budgets are hard right now. Let’s sit down and say we’re willing to negotiate so that we’re making some sacrifices to maintain the number of teachers in the classroom and keep class sizes at a reasonable level. We’re willing to make some modifications in terms of how our pension systems work so that they’re sustainable for the next generation of teachers as long as it’s a conversation, as opposed to it simply being imposed and collective bargaining rights being stripped away.
So I think it’s important -- remember we talked about shared sacrifice and burden sharing. Well, this is an area where there’s got to be burden sharing as well. If a public sector employee is able to retire at 55 with 80 percent of their wages, and the average public sector employee has got a 401(k) that they’ve just seen decline by about 20 percent and they have no idea how they’re going to retire, and they’re feeling burdened by a lot of taxes and they don’t feel like the public sector employers are making any adjustments whatsoever to reflect the tough economic realities that are facing folks who are not protected, then there’s going to be a natural backlash.
First off, public workers have already tightened their belts, taking lower pay rates than they could get in the private sector in exchange for those pensions that Obama sees as producing a "natural backlash"—and still earning less overall, even with the pensions taken into consideration.
Not only that, public sector unions have absolutely negotiated and given things up in this economy as states encounter budget crises. Just because some people "don't feel like" public workers are taking a hit doesn't make it true. The sacrifices that teachers and nurses and firefighters and sanitation workers across the country have made willingly deserve more respect than for the president to validate anger at the idea that they haven't sacrificed.