Earlier this week, Vice President Joseph Biden told participants at an annual conference of the United Auto Workers that union members “are the only guys keeping the barbarians at the gate.” Here’s more, courtesy of David Shepardson of the Detroit News:
Vice President Joe Biden defended the role of organized labor, saying opponents are mounting a long-term war to attack unions.
“These guys on the right — they know without you there — they call every shot,” Biden told more than 1,000 UAW members and retirees on the final day [of] its four-day annual political conference here. “You guys are the only guys keeping the barbarians at the gate.”
I’m sure that members of the Obama Administration have offered similar remarks at other labor conferences, but this is one of their few full-throated endorsements of the labor movement to reach outside the union hall. Perhaps media coverage has something to do with that, but the bigger problem is the Administration itself.
It starts with the President. In 2007, candidate Obama told a gathering of labor activists that he would walk the picket line with them if collective bargaining rights were threatened. By contrast, President Obama’s public support for the labor movement has been much more muted. And he hasn’t been seen walking any picket lines, either.
I’ve said this before on this blog, but it bears repeating: Labor unions may run the gamut from super duper to pretty bad, but on the whole they are the best, most effective mechanisms for providing everyday working people with basic safeguards and decent wages at work and a strong voice in the houses of our legislatures. It is no coincidence that sharply rising income inequality and the decline of union membership levels have occurred together.
As many political and public affairs commentators have observed, the Administration’s policymaking options may be limited in view of an extremely polarized and dysfunctional Congress. Nevertheless, the Oval Office offers a powerful pulpit for raising public awareness and for building public support on issues of the day. I’d love to hear more endorsements of the labor movement from the Administration during its remaining three years.