Friday, March 02, 2012

Obama at the United Auto Workers

President Obama spoke to the United Auto Workers (UAW) union on 02/28/2012, and was in full Democratic campaign mode. He was celebrating one of his genuine progressive accomplishments, the bankruptcy and reorganization of General Motors.

The White House transcript is here.

Obama did hit at his Republican critics. He quoted Willard Romney (without naming him) saying, "let Detroit go bankrupt." And he sounded like a real Democrat when he said:

Let me tell you, I keep on hearing these same folks talk about values all the time. You want to talk about values? Hard work -- that’s a value. (Applause.) Looking out for one another -- that’s a value. The idea that we're all in it together, and I'm my brother's keeper and sister's keeper -- that’s a value. (Applause.)

They're out there talking about you like you're some special interest that needs to be beaten down. Since when are hardworking men and women who are putting in a hard day's work every day -- since when are they special interests? Since when is the idea that we look out for one another a bad thing?

I remember my old friend, Ted Kennedy -- he used to say, what is it about working men and women they find so offensive? (Laughter.) This notion that we should have let the auto industry die, that we should pursue anti-worker policies in the hopes that unions like yours will buckle and unravel -– that’s part of that same old "you are on your own" philosophy that says we should just leave everybody to fend for themselves; let the most powerful do whatever they please. They think the best way to boost the economy is to roll back the reforms we put into place to prevent another crisis, to let Wall Street write the rules again.

But search that transcript for the word "Republican". It's not there. And it's notable that Obama praises the UAW for ... accepting cuts:

Or you've got folks saying, well, the real problem is -- what we really disagreed with was the workers, they all made out like bandits -- that saving the auto industry was just about paying back the unions. Really? (Laughter.) I mean, even by the standards of this town, that’s a load of you know what. (Laughter.)

About 700,000 retirees had to make sacrifices on their health care benefits that they had earned. A lot of you saw hours reduced, or pay or wages scaled back. You gave up some of your rights as workers. Promises were made to you over the years that you gave up for the sake and survival of this industry -- its workers, their families. You want to talk about sacrifice? You made sacrifices. (Applause.) This wasn't an easy thing to do.
He also spent a lot of time defending his neoliberal trade agreements.

Still, it's a good speech, defending one of his Administration's best and most obviously successful actions, and even - yes - praising the labor movement. That's all good.

But to build credibility for the progressive vision, he needs to hammer these themes home. He needs to "name and shame" the Republicans for opposing constructive policies. Unfortunately, his pattern as President has been to make the occasional good speech like this, but then not follow it up immediately with similar presentations. Then before you know it, the Republicans are punking him on something again.

The UAW understandably backed President Obama in his support for the US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement that takes effect March 15. Simply letting General Motors die as a company would have been a severe blow to the UAW and its members. Hoping to reduce the power of the UAW was probably the main reason the Republicans opposed the federal government rehabilitating GM. The UAW may have also calculated that their industry was actually likely to benefit. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) also supposed the agreement, though other unions opposed it. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka opposed it, predicting it would cost the United States 159,000 jobs, some of those presumably in the domestic textile industry. (Zachary Goldfarb and Lori Montgomery, Obama gets win as Congress passes free-trade agreements Washington Post)

Free trade deals, which in the last two decades have had the effect of encouraging the export of capital investment out of the US, are part of the neoliberal/Free Market faith.

So, in other words, even in a progressive, pro-labor speech celebrating a genuinely progressive accomplishment (saving GM) on which the Republicans clearing opposed him, Obama devoted much of the speech to promoting the neoliberal doctrine of "free trade" and praising the UAW for their sacrifices. "You gave up some of your rights as workers," he told them. And presented that as a good thing.

As the late John Kenneth Galbraith once observed, Old Man Bush isn't the only President whose lips need to be read carefully.

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