Last Monday, President Obama defied Republican threats to file suit against him for his use of executive orders. “If House Republicans are really concerned about me taking too many executive actions,” the president said, “the best solution to that is passing bills. Pass a bill, solve a problem.”
Republican obstruction is so extreme that House Speaker John Boehner can’t even get what he wants done, much less what the country needs. House Republicans have blocked countless jobs plans, stonewalled immigration reform, stopped a hike in the minimum wage and prevented emergency unemployment benefits from even getting a vote.
So Obama has begun to act — often belatedly and timidly in his supporters’ view. He has halted deportation of the “dreamers,” kids of undocumented immigrants who were, like their parents, not born in the United States, and promises more action on immigration. He has ordered that the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act not be enforced against gay couples. He has issued a bevy of minor common sense measures on gun control (like making it harder for the mentally ill to get a permit). His push for executive action on climate change will have real impact. And recently, he lifted the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour, shaming Republican obstruction of this long overdue measure.
Republicans are simply drinking the Kool-Aid if they think they can make Obama’s initiatives an issue in the fall elections. Americans want action, not more dysfunction.
In fact, the president would be well advised to elevate his sights. He has called the United States’ inequality the “defining challenge of our time.” He understands this isn’t about a few getting obscenely rich, but about the many struggling simply to stay afloat. Median household incomes have fallen in this “recovery,” as the richest 1 percent captured a staggering 95 percent of the nation’s income growth from 2009-2012. One in five children are raised in poverty. Workers’ wages have been mostly stagnant for more than thirty years, while productivity has continued to rise. U.S. companies could afford to provide higher wages to their workers but instead the money has gone to investors, chief executives and others in executive suites.
There are many reasons for this, of course, but one central cause has been the unrelenting and successful war waged against workers and their right to organize and bargain collectively. The facts on this are clear. Unions — aided by Franklin Roosevelt’s support — came out of World War II representing nearly 40 percent of the private workforce. They could negotiate industry-wide wage and labor standards. Non-union employers had to compete to attract decent employees. Union power in the workforce curbed the avarice of corporate CEOs and captured boards. Union power in the democracy helped to lift the minimum wage, pass fair labor standards, make workplaces safer and win the 40-hour work week. And they anchored our democracy, leading the United States to champion those unions across the world as a counter to the Soviet model.
Like all large institutions, unions were and are far from perfect. As they grew larger, they grew less militant, servicing current members often took priority over organizing new ones. Labor laws limited their ability to negotiate about quality or corporate strategy. Union democracy did not eliminate corruption. Employers struggled with inane union rules.
But it was their successes, not their failures, that led companies to open up a full-scale assault on them. When Ronald Reagan fired the striking air-traffic control workers, open season was declared on labor. Companies shared tactics to crush organizing drives. Labor laws were trampled; enforcement weakened. Reforms were blocked in the Congress. Segregationist Democrats in the South passed “right to work” laws, fearful of multi-racial union organizing. New Democrats echoed conservative memes of unions as outmoded.
Now unions represent about 7 percent of the private-sector workforce. Scholars suggest that the decline of unions accounts directly for about one-third of the rise of inequality. That probably understates the effect. As unions lost strength, the wealthy and big corporations were more able to rig the rules to benefit themselves. As unions grew weaker, the demands of creditors had ever-greater weight over the demands for full employment. Corporate boards of union-free companies had free rein to lavish bonuses and rewards on CEOs.
President Obama could challenge this trend directly. The liberal think tank Demos has recently published a study, “Underwriting Good Jobs,” showing that the president could use executive action to put some 21 million Americans onto the road of joining the middle class.
The U.S. government is the largest employer of low-wage workers in the nation, with the $1.3 trillion it spends on purchasing goods and services. The president, standing in the proud tradition of Roosevelt, could issue a Good Jobs Executive Order that would reward companies who pay their workers a living wage, allow them a voice at the workplace without having to go on strike, adhere to federal workplace safety and fair labor standards and limit the pay of their chief executives to some reasonable ratio to that of their average workers.
Of course, the corporate and conservative lobbies would rise up. Nothing arouses more fury than something that might impede their access to federal lucre. But in reality, the country and the democracy have a huge stake in a broad middle class. Well-paid, productive workers aren’t simply an idle luxury; they are a vital necessity to any prosperous economy.
The president has praised Costco, for example, as a company that “pays good wages and offers good benefits,” saying that “this isn’t just good for their business, it’s good for America.” Costco pays its hourly workers an average of over $20 an hour, not including overtime. Eighty-eight percent have health-care benefits. The contrast with the low-road model of Wal-Mart, which relies on employees collecting food stamps and Medicaid, is stark. Yet Costco is successful, benefiting from loyal, committed and productive employees, who stay at the company and rise in the ranks.
Obama could use the Good Jobs Executive Order to make federal procurement a spur to high-road employers. Millions would be helped directly. Democratic governors and mayors could issue similar orders. Once more, as under Roosevelt, government could stand with workers, helping to build rather than undermine an economy in which the rewards are widely shared.
Republicans want to make an election issue out of Obama’s use of executive actions to overcome their obstruction? The president should double down and raise the stakes. Democrats would win that fight — and they would deserve to win.