With the economy as the central issue of the 2012 election, it’s no surprise that President Obama has cast himself as standing up for American workers. Starting with his speech about income inequality last December in Osawatomie, Kan., the president has cast himself as a defender of the working and/or middle class (depending on the audience), and Republicans as, well, patsies for the idle rich or some other cheap phrase. Obviously, campaign rhetoric is invariably overstated, but even after adjusting for “on-the-trail” distortions, the truth is somewhat different: In both his politics and his actual policies, President Obama is not a candidate in whom American workers can be confident.
While the president has been happy to include populist lines in his speeches, his campaign has remained absent in key workers’ rights struggles around the country, such the Houston janitors’ strike. As the Nation’s Greg Kaufmann reports, “In Houston, more than 3,200 janitors clean the offices of some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world: JP Morgan Chase, Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Wells Fargo, KBR and Marathon Oil, to name a few. For their labor, they are paid an hourly wage of $8.35 and earn an average of $8,684 annually. Two janitors together would earn about $17,300 a year — still well below the poverty line of $22,314 for a family of four.” That income gap is no aberration: The city of Houston has the fourth-highest income inequality in the nation, although before blue state residents laugh, they should note that two of the top three cities are New York and Los Angeles. SEIU Local 1, which has been representing the janitors since 2005, has asked contractors for a $1.50 hourly wage raise over three years, but management refuses to offer more than 50 cents over five years, ensuring that janitors remain in poverty.
In response, hundreds of janitors in Houston walked off the job last Tuesday, and there have been solidarity strikes in Denver, Minneapolis and a number of other cites. There are plenty of campaign ad-ready stories among the striking janitors, such as a janitor and mother of three who confronted JPMorgan head Jamie Dimon after his recent congressional hearing to ask, “Despite making billions last year, why do you deny the people cleaning your buildings a living wage?” If Obama wanted to offer a textbook example of a major campaign theme — America’s widening income gap — that would also signal his commitment to helping workers, he could at least release a statement supporting the strikers, yet he and other Democrats seem content to let the janitors fight alone.
Still, even if the president and his staff believe supporting Houston janitors and other struggling workers would be a political negative, there’s certainly room for the White House to enact policies American workers would favor. Even on policy, though, the administration is falling short. Last week, negotiators from the United States and eight other nations concluded the latest round of secretive talks over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. But a leaked chapter suggests that this new agreement “would allow corporations from TPP countries to bring suit before a multinational tribunal when laws or regulations in another member country harm their profits,” bypassing the diplomatic process.
The language in the leaked chapter is broad enough that corporations could use the agreement as a back door to invalidating labor and environmental regulations. Worse, as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) noted in May, “the majority of Congress is being kept in the dark as to the substance of the TPP negotiations, while representatives of U.S. corporations — like Halliburton, Chevron, PHRMA, Comcast and the MPAA — are being consulted and made privy to details of the negotiations.” (It should also be noted that Internet-rights advocates worry that the TPP will have SOPA-esque restrictions in place for copyrighted material.) Free-trade agreements are not inherently bad for workers and the middle class, but the TPP should worry those overlapping groups.
If the president’s coolness toward working Americans surprises you, it shouldn’t, given the businessmen Obama has chosen to cast his lot with, such as Honeywell chief executive Dave Cote, a member of the president’s Jobs Council and debt commission. As Mike Elk of In These Times has reported, under Cote, Honeywell “has lately distinguished itself as clearly anti-union,” with many workers accusing the company of bad-faith negotiating and tactics. But Obama, his administration and other Democrats have been happy to work with Cote and (at least tacitly) support its anti-union tactics. In June, for example, just a few weeks after Honeywell indefinitely shut down its Metropolis, Ill., uranium conversion plant and immediately cut off all union workers’ health care, President Obama held a jobs-for-veterans event at a Honeywell plant. (Honeywell must be happy with the relationship: During the mid-terms, the company was the largest corporate PAC donor to Democrats.)
All this is not to say that Mitt Romney is a better candidate for the American worker; he isn’t. And on select issues, such as appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, Obama has been much better for workers than a President Romney would be. Nevertheless, it is hard not to conclude that in 2012 there is no major-party candidate who enthusiastically supports the American worker. The solution, unfortunately, is not as simple as voting third party; those who would do so should consider how different the country would look if a few more Nader supporters had voted for Al Gore in 2000. The best plan, it seems, is to look ahead to 2016, when new candidates will be battling it out to lead the Democratic Party. In the next four years, pro-worker, pro-middle class voters would be wise to ask these would-be presidents for more than empty promises before offering their support.