Obama’s No Show
By Reginald Johnson
March 16, 2011
At a rally last weekend in New York on behalf of the embattled public workers in Wisconsin, one of the most popular tunes sung by the protesters was “Which Side Are You On?”
It’s an old union song, made famous during a bitter strike by workers in the 1940s against coal mine operators in Harlan County, Kentucky.
Today, a lot of people have to be wondering which side President Obama is on --- the side of unions and workers, or big corporations and their right-wing allies.
You would think that a Democratic president who owes his election in good part to the hard work of union members and contributions by organized workers, would be out there fighting against blatant attempts to eviscerate public sector unions. But Obama has failed to do that.
While he’s made a couple of statements in support of unions under attack in Wisconsin and other states, they’ve been mild in tone --- not the firey, passionate speeches Obama is fully capable of making.
He’s also refused to go directly to Wisconsin and speak, and refused to allow any top people in his administration, such as Vice President Joe Biden, from going.
Obama is showing once again he’s not very progressive, and really not much of a labor supporter either, despite the union support he’s gotten for his campaigns. Recall in his first year in office, he never really campaigned for the “card check” bill which would have aided union organizing and which the AFL-CIO so desperately wanted. Then last year he stunned the labor community when he praised school district officials in Rhode Island for firing all the union teachers at a low performing high school.
National politics is also at work here. Obama seems to be playing a game of not being too spirited in supporting unions in Wisconsin and Ohio, lest he be open to a Republican charge of being a ‘tool of union bosses’ and blocking budget reform.
This is all very troubling. The labor movement’s very survival may be on the line right now as the right-wing attack on workers continues, and the leader of the Democratic Party doesn’t think it’s in his interest to get out and really fight for working people.
I can’t think of any Democratic president in the past who would have been this low-key when unions were under such a vicious attack.
In the meantime, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has gotten his way, at least for now, ramming through the bill that curbs bargaining rights for public workers. Other right-wing governors in Ohio, Idaho and Florida are also working to gut the power of public employee unions.
Obama, and many leading Democratic members of Congress as well, better realize that the progressive-liberal base has woken up during this Wisconsin-Ohio labor battle, and people are not in the mood for the usual political fence-sitting and game-playing. They want answers and they want leaders who will stand by them.
Hundreds of thousands of workers, activists and supporters have been rallying for weeks in Wisconsin and Ohio, refusing to cave in to the demand that public employees give up their rights.
Last weekend, over 100,000 people rallied in the Wisconsin capital of Madison to again protest Walker’s bill and voiced their support for a recall drive directed at all the Republican state senators who backed the measure. They also welcomed back like conquering heroes the 14 Democratic senators who had fled the state for weeks, to prevent the GOP from getting the quorum needed to act on the bill. The Republicans nonetheless staged a last minute legislative maneuver to get the bill through without the Democrats.
Other demonstrations broke out spontaneously around the country in support of the Wisconsin workers.
In Union Square in New York, about 70 people gathered in an impromptu rally, carrying signs denouncing Walker, singing along with a pick-up band and shouting pro-worker chants.
While the rally wasn’t big, it wasn’t bad for a protest thrown together on short notice, just a day after Walker signed the union-killing law.
Bill Linville, a Bronx school teacher who helped organize the protest, said it was important to show solidarity with workers in Wisconsin.
“What happened in Wisconsin could happen here,” said Linville, noting that New York leaders like Mayor Michael Bloomberg are threatening huge teacher layoffs, despite a budget surplus.
“This is our PATCO moment,” said Linville, referring to the time 30 years ago when then President Ronald Reagan fired members of the air traffic contollers union, when employees walked off the job in a dispute over working conditions.
Many observers feel that labor as a whole did too little to oppose the firings, and unions have been in retreat ever since.
“I’m behind the Wisconsin workers a kuzillion percent,” said Rosemarie, a retiree who was visiting New York from her home in Pennsylvania. She saw the rally and decided to jump in.
“If that kind of thing can be done out there to workers, it could happen all over, and our whole quality of life will be worse, she said.