Senator Harkin comments on Obama’s labor problem

Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) comments  about President Obama’s State of the Union Address seemed to be channeling one of this blog’s recent commentaries by Leon Fink on Obama’s Inaugural Address. Fink reflected on the absence of historical memory about the role of labor in the past and the present in Obama’s historical presentation of the role of movements.  Harkin noted the same lack of labor and the power equation in Obama’s view of history and policy.

Speaking the day after the SOTU address on the Bill Press show, Harkin expressed satisfaction with much of the speech, including an emphasis on building the middle class. But he suggested that Obama left out the key mechanism that could build a middle class: labor unions. Harkin commented that “the crux” of “the problem is that people don’t have any power…You’ve got to give workers more of a power to be able to bargain for things like their wages, for pensions, for family and medical leave, and paid sick leave and things like that.” Harkin felt “upset and really saddened” that Obama “didn’t even give a nod to labor unions,” noting that without them, the President wouldn’t have been elected.

Des Moines Register photo Two policemen haul a demonstrator to a police van during a UAW strike at the gates of the Delavan Corporation in West Des Moines. Police arrested 27 union members.
Des Moines Register photo
Two policemen haul demonstrator to police van during Delevan strike in West Des Moines. Police arrested 27 UAW rank-and-file that day.

Fink wrote in his blog last week that labor unions were left out of the Inaugural, an absence doubly notable because of the inclusion of Seneca Falls and Stonewall in the pantheon of progressive political memories, as well as an astonishingly welcome nod to “collective action” as the way that the U.S. had moved closer to realizing its own ideals. By erasing labor unions from the list, Obama was expressing the reality of Democratic Party calculations.

Harkin is an old school New Deal liberal who is retiring, one of the last of the remaining “labor” Democrats who gave some credibility to AFL-CIO’s strategy of spending boatloads of members’ dues and energy on political campaigns for centrists and liberals. Harkin’s disabled brother Frank was “permanently replaced” by Delevan Corporation in 1978 in a struggle that “broke his spirit,” after having been a reliable worker for 23 years. Delevan  had been bought out by investors who provoked a strike to get rid of the union.  By that time, the Democratic Party was already wooing the financier vultures like Delevan’s owners. The AFL-CIO unions’ strategy of moderation and party politics failed to stem the tide of Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush  policies that contributed to the steady decline of the labor movement as a force in U.S. politics. Now Obama follows in a long train of abuses.

I’ve never thought  the idea of creating or saving the middle class  expresses the vision of a fighting labor movement (when it’s been a movement) past or present. It’s a bad term to remedy the class war that has been on-going. But the language and memory employed by Obama reflects what labor can expect from him in his second term. It’s time for a new plan, because empowering labor isn’t on the agenda.


  • Justin Law
    Justin Law February 14, 2013


    I believe I read somewhere recently some comments by the late David Montgomery about historians developing new ways of telling labor’s story in a post-industrial/declining industrial union environment…
    In light of the absence of the acknowledgment of the role of labor in progressive change in the President’s speeches, the strong endorsement of a raise in the minimum wage to $9 an hour by the President in the SOTU(People who work full time shouldn’t live in poverty. Thats wrong. ect.), and the discarding of the EFCA a few years back-do you think that the Democratic Party has become the bargaining agent for the working-class (at least those in most likely non-union jobs)? If so, is the new frame for labor historians the study of progressive movements within/from without the Democratic Party rather than the labor movement? I know you’ve written about the importance of social movement unionism as well. With that in mind, do you think that Obama is a leader of a social movement, and, if so, how has his social movement reflected the relationship with labor? What is the alternative?

    There is a similar situation in Illinois. With Speaker Madigan denying to participate in the Summit on Pensions sponsored by AFSME, the potential strike talk of late, and proposals for raising the minimum wage, one wonders where things are going. Maybe labor will embrace the wider community in any strike action, and perhaps progressive Democrats will rally to the cause, but Speaker Madigan and Gov. Quinn still have a great deal of power. Labor is in a tight spot. But is the labor movement even the bargaining agent for the working-class anymore or is it the Democratic Party? And how will the wider community respond to a strike?

    I believe Tom Hayden has argued in his Peace Exchange Bulletin, of late, that progressives should organize within the Democratic Party as an independent force, with the goal of pulling centrists and liberals towards a more progressive approach. It does seem that the second term is an opportunity for progressives to make an attempt to re-align the party, or foster a third party. One interesting analogy is Third Period CP political activity. Maybe Trotsky was right, and social democrats were not exactly social fascists. But is the current Democratic Party even a fair comparison to the social democrats of the thirties? Regardless, if progressives organize independantly how do they persuade and not divide in this environment?

    The question for me is, in light of the absence, as a historian, can you think of any examples from the past that may add some guidance to how the working-class has responded to similar circumstances in the past? Or are we in uncharted territory?

    Thanks for the posts, and for your work on LaborOnline. Its been a good way of seeing what other historians are thinking about.

  • Rosemary Feurer
    Rosemary Feurer February 14, 2013

    Hi Justin,
    Interesting comments!
    I understand what Hayden is saying about being an independent force in the Democratic Party. It would be nice to have a second party, just like it would be nice to have a President who saw the need to think about reducing the power of capital and increasing the power of workers. But alas, that will not happen unless we change the idea about what is possible and what it is that the labor movement represents and how it organizes.

    We need to encourage the memory of history, not only by encouraging workers and students to think about how the most impossible ideas became possible by building movements, but also about the limits of the past for any guidepost to the future.

    We certainly have to rethink the limits of a campaign for an EFCA. We need to stop being trapped by the idea that the limits on the Democratic Party is imposed by the extreme behavior of the right. That’s a bunch of hooey. This is what progressives have done since Obama has been elected.

    In my lifetime, the mantra There Is No Alternative robbed the soul of the labor movement and wrecked the minds of a lot of the generation. The people I have met over the years in struggle are certainly no less brilliant and creative than people of past generation. There was a base for a fight-back movement. So we have to think about why we are left with such a caved-in labor movement even when that was true.
    If we are ever to get out of this mess, it will be by overcoming the limits imposed by that past bureaucracy and the failure of the left to create alternatives within that space. I am willing to predict that any future movement will be forged not by totally new methods of organizing but by the basics forged in past labor movement heights–of connecting workplace and community issues, building at the base, reviving ideas of cooperation and shorter hours, of the labor movement as a project beyond a contract, worker control, democratic values, but also focusing in on key demands.

    I think that we are in a moment of crisis that demands that we re-think our assumptions and think about how to build a movement before we can think of how to cast political demands with the limited political imagination of the present. . As the Pew Center study showed, the percentage of young people and people of color who have positive view of socialism is higher than one would think. The New York Times had an article a few days ago that showed that the young people have more in common with the sentiments of the early New Deal generation, who realized the only thing between them and despair was a government program for a leg up. If labor is ever going to be a social movement, it will come out of these new sensibilities, and it will have to rethink the limits of the New Deal system that derived from the limits imposed on and by the left and by the weight of the Cold war. But geez, the labor movement hasn’t been the base for any innovative ideas in my lifetime. It’s about time we started making some demands. We need to see that in the past vibrant eras, the labor movement was intensely tied to communities of struggle and that moderation has gotten us nowhere.

  • Justin Law
    Justin Law February 14, 2013

    Thanks for your response. A lot to stew on here, but here are a few thoughts regardless:
    I’ve given a lot of slack to the President, considering his circumstances. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve always acknowledged the strong pull of the liberals and triangulationists in his administration, but hey, thats the nature of the beast, so I guess its to be expected. But I’m still convinced a left-liberal debate is better than what we had prior to that. It has given some space for actually moving forward, and the next few years are key, so progressives should do their part to participate in finding some solutions. And I’m still convinced that if the circumstances were differant, the President would be as well. But maybe he needs to be persuaded from the left. The financial/economic crisis must be factored in, I think, in how we interpret his choices. There is still hope for the last two years at least. The recent “McGovern Coalition” demographic victory perhaps will lead to the re-thinking you spoke of. Maybe not. Guess its up to the people. 2016 remains an opportunity and a moment of truth. I don’t think the wave has crested yet. And I’m still hopeful that we the people will remember our role as citizen workers.

    As for the labor movement, the bureaucracy, and the strategies and tactics: they’re up against the wall, and so its hard to blame them for the obvious failures and defeats, but I guess they should share some of the blame even though it pains me to say that. However, I recently read an acount of the Seattle general strike of 1919, and it reminds me that regardless if they would have had a “victory” the shipyards were on the decline anyways and by 1921 the economy was back to pre-war conditions. Jimmy Duncan was a good man, and the Seattle labor movment was a progressive force, but even they couldn’t stop it.
    Thus more and more I’m becoming convinced that the failures of neoliberalism just present differant challenges than the depression of the thirties or demobilization after WW1 and WW2. CIO unionism/social movement unionism was a product of the times. So who knows what form it will take in the present. If any at all. Occupy gave me some hope, but remember how even the ILWU/Occupy coalition faired on the west coast docks? Labor is in a tight spot, and so are the people. I’m just worried that if the State is the bargaining agent a raise in the minimum wage is the limit, and one-dimensional thinking rules the day. But, a raise sure beats the status quo. So I guess I’ll champion that and not cross the picket line if AFSME goes on strike.
    Thanks again.

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