Is Labor turning on Obama?

Gautham Nagesh Contributor

Not yet, according to Steven Greenhouse, but they’re not happy. After months of setbacks organized labor was dealt another blow Tuesday when President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seemingly endorsed the firing of the entire faculty of a troubled Rhode Island high school.

Union leaders are reportedly “appalled” by the Administration’s comments and generally frustrated with the lack of progress on a number of labor initiatives. With the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as card check, dead for the time being and the nomination of labor lawyer Craig Becker to the NLRB blocked in Senate, organized labor is feeling understandably scorned after campaigning extensively for Obama in 2008.

With private sector union membership at its lowest levels in decades the labor movement has turned to the public sector, where the the recent unprecedented growth in federal spending provides ample grounds for expanding organizations such as the SEIU. But simply expanding public sector union membership would not be enough to offset the loss of jobs in the manufacturing and construction sectors.

That’s why the SEIU and liberal interest groups are pressuring the Administration to change labor regulations via executive order. Behind the scenes Vice President Biden’s team, lead by his chief economic advisor Jared Bernstein, have been pushing since last year for the Administration to implement the “High Road Contracting Policy“, which could provide a substantive boost to unionized companies competing for federal contracts.

The High Road policy could also have significant impact on the private sector, particularly in the construction and services industries where federal dollars constitute a significant portion of the business currently available. The Recovery Act alone includes more than $100 billion in construction projects, all of which would be subject to the new regulations.

But the recent media coverage of the discussions and the accompanying backlash from conservatives and industry groups has compelled the White House hedge on the proposal even as they prepare to unveil it publicly. Last week’s report from the White House’s Middle Class Task Force included this nugget on “Responsible Federal Contracting”:

The Federal Government spends over half a trillion dollars a year on contracts for goods and services, generating employment for tens of millions of workers. However, there are inadequate controls on the records of firms who get these contracts and on the quality of the jobs these contracts create. Ignoring these factors has negative implications, not only for the workers on these contracts, but for the quality and efficiency of services rendered. For these reasons, the Task Force has participated in a review process to identify ways to reform the procurement process to increase the quality of both the services procured and the jobs created under Federal contracts.

The Task Force recognizes that contracts should not be awarded to irresponsible sources with unsatisfac­tory records of business ethics, including noncompliance with labor and employment, tax, fraud, and consumer protection laws. We also recognize that substandard wages and benefits can have negative impacts on employees’ productivity and stability, which in turn can reduce the quality of performance on Federal contracts.

We expect to produce shortly some new recommendations to bring these ideas into practice.

This makes it seem like the Administration is preparing to move forward with the High Road policies despite the potential political fallout. It will be interesting to see if Labor can convince the Administration to fight this battle instead of selling them out once again.

See: Unions Still Back Obama, but Voice Concerns – NYTimes.com.