A crowd gathers in the State Capitol’s rotunda for a protest in Lansing, Michigan, on Tuesday. (AP)
Washington, Dec. 11: Barack Obama’s second term as US President is almost seven weeks away, but Americans are beginning to get glimpses of what he will be like in the White House during his final four years of office.
If you a rich American, Right-wing, conservative or Republican it is not a very comforting picture. But if you are among the “99 per cent”, a term popularised by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement to describe average Americans as opposed to the privileged, Obama is signalling that the failed hopes he held out for them during his first election will be realised. Or at least that he intends to work towards it.
Yesterday, Obama surprised America’s labour union leaders, who worked hard for his re-election, when he walked straight into their battle to stop Michigan’s Republican majority legislature and the state’s Republican governor Rick Snyder from enacting a bill to crack down on trade union rights and make it into law.
The President travelled to Detroit and addressed workers at an automobile plant there. “I have just got to say this. What we should not be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions. We should not be doing that.”
His visit to Detroit energised tens of thousands of workers from all over Michigan as they were gathering in the state capital, Lansing, in an attempt to stop the legislature from passing a bill that will make it the 24th state in the US to have a “right-to-work” law. It was Obama’s state-funded automobile industry rescue in 2009 that saved their jobs in the aftermath of the financial meltdown the previous year.
The “right-to-work” is a contradiction in terms. It is a euphemism for avoiding trade union membership for workers who are presumed to have the right to work without joining collective bargaining.
Lobbying to have right-to-work laws has been funded by big corporations and Right-wing ideologues across this country in the last few years which have seen the decline of America’s labour movement.
But even so the President’s decision to wade into the debate and directly challenge states, which are very protective about their right to legislate came as a bold surprise.
Obama told automobile workers in Detroit yesterday: “You know, these so-called right-to-work laws, they don’t have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics. What they are really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.” The crowd cheered wildly.
If Chicago is associated with Labour Day, the symbol of the earliest workers’ rights, Detroit is the birthplace of today’s trade union movement in this country since the time America’s industrial prowess came to be identified with its automobile industry which once dominated global markets.
Michigan’s efforts to crack down on organised labour, therefore, has a special resonance for America’s working class. Belying expectations following his historic White House win four years ago, his relationship with trade unions was tense at best during most of his first term.
Labour leaders lamented that Obama did not push legislation that would have made the task of union organising less cumbersome and bureaucratic.
Unwilling to upset the balance of forces before his re-election, Obama also kept away from an epic battle in Wisconsin between its Republican governor Scott Walker and organised labour over prohibiting collective bargaining by the state’s public workers.
Many blame Obama’s indifference then on a failed effort to recall Walker. During the just concluded US elections, Walker become a conservative hero because he survived the recall.