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How President Obama Could Strengthen Unions Today

Amy Traub

“We should do everything we can to strengthen unions in this country,” said President Obama on Tuesday.

America was built by workers who over time, through a lot of struggle, got the right to bargain collectively.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that our middle class was built in part because unions were able to negotiate weekends and overtime and benefits—things that now non-union workers take for granted.  Well, you got those because unions were out there fighting for you for a very long time.

The president made the remarks in response to a question at a manufacturing plant in Pittsburgh. And they raise a critical question of their own: what can the president do to strengthen unions—and workers’ rights more broadly—in the U.S.?

A new study, out today from my colleagues Robert Hiltonsmith and Lew Daly at Demos, addresses just that question. The study finds that 21 million Americans—eight million workers and their families—rely on low-wage jobs with firms that receive a significant portion of their revenue from federal funds. This vast workforce is employed by companies funded through federal contracts, Medicare and other health care spending, infrastructure grants, and more. Congress could take action to strengthen the right to organize and bargain collectively for all of them—and for every other worker in the public and private economies. But you don’t have to be a DC-insider to realize that this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. What could happen is executive action.                     

President Obama has spoken of using “the power of the pen” to take executive and regulatory action on key elements of his agenda that are otherwise blocked by Congress—and he has acted. In February, Obama signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers. That action will benefit hundreds of thousands of contract workers and their families. More recently, the president has moved to advance equal pay for contract workers and to ban contracting companies from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

As part of an effort to “do everything we can to strengthen unions in this country” President Obama should take similar steps to strengthen the broad range of workplace rights for federal contract workers. Hiltonsmith and Daly propose a Good Jobs Policy that would:

incentivize and reward employers who adopt the highest employment standards, including: 

  • Respecting employees’ right to bargain collectively with their employers, without being forced to take strike action to win better wages and conditions.
  • Offering living wages and decent benefits, including health care and paid leave for sickness and caregiving, and offering fair work schedules that are predictable and stable. 
  • Demonstrating an exemplary standard of compliance with workplace protection laws, including laws governing wages, hours, health, and safety, as well as other applicable business regulations.
  • Limiting excessive executive pay: a strong preference should be given to firms with CEO/median pay ratios below 50-to-1; in addition, the current cap on federal contract funds applicable for executive salaries should be substantially reduced.

Read their study, Underwriting Good Jobs, for an examination of the working conditions of federal contract workers, as well as a look at how a Good Jobs Policy might work. Federal contract and concession workers have announced they will continue to strike and protest until the President acts to guarantee them a voice on the job.

If you agree that President Obama should take action, sign our petition calling for an executive order.