The Obameter

Walk with picketers when collective bargaining rights are threatened

“If American workers are being denied their right to organize when I'm in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes and I will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States."


Updates

Obama never marched with union picketers

While running for president in 2007, Barack Obama promised that he would protect unions' collective bargain rights.

"If American workers are being denied their right to organize when I'm in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes and I will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States," then Illinois Sen. Obama said in Spartanburg, S.C., on Nov. 3, 2007.

We checked in with multiple unions and the White House and found no evidence that Obama physically walked with picketers.

He could have marched with picketers in Wisconsin but instead just voiced his support. Union workers protested a 2011 state law, Act 10, that crippled public-sector unions that helped make Republican Gov. Scott Walker a national political figure.

"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama told a Wisconsin television reporter Feb. 16., 2011. "I think everybody's got to make some adjustments, but I think it's also important to recognize that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens."

The National Labor Relations Board does not apply to public workers -- their collective bargaining rights are governed by state law, said University of Minnesota history professor William P. Jones. (He was at the University of Wisconsin during the Act 10 battle and is working on a book about public sector unions.)

So while Obama could have marched with the Wisconsin workers, "he would have been criticizing a state law, which presidents are often reluctant to do," Jones said.

There are other examples of Obama's administration siding with unions, even if he did not literally walk the walk.

A White House spokeswoman pointed to three executive orders by Obama to support workers' collective bargaining rights. These included an order that required federal contractors to post written notice of their employees' rights (such as to collective bargaining), another prohibiting contractors from spending federal money on union avoidance, and one requiring prospective contractors to disclose labor law violations.

Also, in February 2011, the administration granted approximately 45,000 Transportation Security Administration employees the right to bargain collectively -- a right they did not have before. Obama also sought to strengthen the National Labor Relations Board, and his Democratic appointments to the board issued several rulings that favored unions.

The NLRB ruled in favor of two key groups to collectively bargain: subcontractors and graduate students at private universities, Jones said.

Jones said Obama's moves may have been more quiet than the president actually walking a picket line,  but they had a bigger impact.

"While he did not walk a picket line, his administration did strengthen collective bargaining rights," he said.

But Obama didn't take every opportunity to strengthen those rights, said Georgetown history professor Joseph McCartin, an expert on U.S. labor.

Obama didn't support the Model Employer Executive Order that would have required federal contractors to respect the rights of their employees to bargain collectively.

"In short, Obama did more to support collective bargaining than any president in recent decades, but the bar had not been set high by his recent predecessors," McCartin said. "Ultimately his support for collective bargaining was never full-throated or unstinting."  

Obama's administration took some pro-labor steps. But when Obama had the chance to show up and "walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States" — which would have been a powerful symbol — he did not take it when he had the chance in Wisconsin, going through with a pre-arranged interview instead.

We rate this Promise Broken.

Sources:

YouTube video of Obama"s remarks in Spartanburg, S.C., Nov. 3, 2007

U.S. Department of Labor, Executive order 13496, Jan. 30, 2009

U.S. Department of Labor, Executive Order 13673: Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces, July 31, 2014

President Barack Obama, Executive Order -- Economy in Government Contracting, Jan. 30, 2009

Politico, "SCOTUS strikes appointments," June 26, 2014

Politico, "Obama labor board flexes it's muscles," Sept. 1, 2015

NPR, "NLRB Rules Graduate Students Are Employees With The Right To Unionize," Aug. 23, 2016

Los Angeles Times, "NLRB gives labor a major win in subcontractor case," Aug. 27, 2015

Interview, Hannah Hankins, White House spokeswoman, Dec. 13, 2016

Interview, William P. Jones, University of Minnesota history professor, Dec. 13, 2016

Interview, Omar Tewfik, AFSCME spokesman, Dec. 12, 2016

Interview, Joseph McCartin, Georgetown history professor, Dec. 13, 2016

President hasn't walked with Wisconsin protesters yet

On Nov. 3, 2007, Barack Obama -- then a senator running for president -- pledged to a crowd in Spartanburg, S.C., that he would watch out for unions and protect their collective bargaining rights.

"If American workers are being denied their right to organize when I'm in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes and I will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States,” Obama said.

We didn't notice this promise when we created our Obameter, but several readers have pointed it out to us because of the battle over collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin. So we are adding it to our database.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has pursued limits on union power and faced fierce opposition by Democrats and thousands of protesters at the state capitol. Walker has argued that the state's budget deficits make it necessary to curb collective bargaining by public employees, while Democrats have accused Walker of union-busting.

Before adding the promise to our database, we considered whether Obama's comment was simply a rhetorical flourish. We concluded that it wasn't. The picket-line pledge was included among a number of other specific promises -- that he would, as president, "end the tax giveaways to companies that ship our jobs overseas,” and that he wouldn't "wait 10 years to raise the minimum wage -- I'll raise it to keep pace every single year.” And Obama's comment wasn't made off the cuff -- it was included in the pre-prepared remarks archived on the Obama campaign site.

So what has Obama done to carry out his promise in Wisconsin? It's clear that he hasn't literally suited up to walk a picket line or joined the demonstrations. Rather, his clearest action came in a Feb. 16, 2011, interview with a local Wisconsin television station.

"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama told a reporter during a White House sit-down. "I think everybody's got to make some adjustments, but I think it's also important to recognize that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens."

The White House says the interview was previously scheduled, rather than set up specifically to allow Obama to address the dispute. And Obama doesn't appear to have made any other official comments or actions regarding the Wisconsin standoff.

The only other time he came close was during remarks to the nation's governors on Feb. 28, 2011, in which he did not cite Wisconsin specifically.

"I believe that everybody should be prepared to give up something in order to solve our budget challenges, and I think most public servants agree with that,” Obama said. "Democrats and Republicans agree with that. In fact, many public employees in your respective states have already agreed to cuts. But let me also say this: I don't think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon. We need to attract the best and the brightest to public service. These times demand it. We"re not going to attract the best teachers for our kids, for example, if they only make a fraction of what other professionals make. We're not going to convince the bravest Americans to put their lives on the line as police officers or firefighters if we don"t properly reward that bravery.”

The question of what Obama has done to live up his Spartanburg promise came up at the Feb. 24, 2011, White House briefing by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

A reporter said, "You've been asked about what he said about joining the picket lines back in 2007 when he said, ‘If American workers are being denied their right to organize when I"m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes and I will walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States.' Is he ready to put on a comfortable pair of shoes and fulfill that promise?”

Carney responded that Obama, "as president, has a -- obviously an ability to be heard when he speaks, and he spoke to the situation in Wisconsin and his views on it last week.  And I'll leave it at that.”

The reporter followed up, "And I know you weren't with him at the time, but do you think he meant that when he said it? Is that a promise?”

Carney said he thought a president "has different means of speaking out on issues and being heard, and clearly he did -- he made his viewpoints known on the situation in Wisconsin, the need for people to come together. He takes very seriously the fiscal situation that the states find themselves in -- some of the states -- and understands it because he understands it at the federal level. But he encourages the parties involved to come together and sacrifice together and reach a solution that serves the interests of all the people of the states, just like he's trying to do for the broader nation.”

So Carney provided no sign that Obama would be getting significantly more involved in the dispute any time soon -- much less that he would literally join the protesters on the ground in Wisconsin. Because the Wisconsin battle is ongoing -- and because similar fights have begun or may begin soon in other states -- we think it would be premature to call this a Promise Broken. But we do think that, other than the two brief comments, Obama has so far failed to live up to the promise he made in Spartanburg. So for now, we rate this promise Stalled.

Sources:

Barack Obama, remarks in Spartanburg, S.C., Nov. 3, 2007

YouTube video of Obama"s remarks in Spartanburg, S.C., Nov. 3, 2007

Washington Post, "Obama joins Wisconsin's budget battle, opposing Republican anti-union bill,” Feb. 18, 2011

White House, press briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, Feb. 24, 2011

White House, remarks by the president and the vice president to the National Governors Association, Feb. 28, 2011

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "WTMJ-TV reporter gets Obama one-on-one,” Feb. 16, 2011

E-mail interview with Bryan Kennedy, president of AFT-Wisconsin, March 3, 2011