The blog of Eric Lee - web design and internet consulting for the trade union movement.

Roosevelt or Clinton? Obama must choose

After the cheering has died down, the empty champagne bottles recycled and we awaken to a new day in America, many of us are asking the question: what next?

One doesn't need a crystal ball to predict what Obama will do in his first few months in office. The new Democratic president is going to introduce new legislation, re-order budget priorities, and attempt sweeping change. Top priorities will include grappling with the economic crisis, climate change and health care.

It's important therefore to contrast the first few years of the Roosevelt administration with that of Clinton – and to ask which type of president Obama will be.

In 1992, Bill Clinton had a long shopping list of changes he promised to implement with health care at the very top of his agenda. But he failed on that central issue and within two years, Republicans had regained control of Congress.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, managed to pass the most sweeping package of social reforms ever – the glorious New Deal. And his New Deal coalition kept the Democrats in power for twenty years. In fact, it wasn't until 36 years after Roosevelt's 1932 victory that a right-wing Republican would enter the White House. You could even make the case that it wasn't until Reagan's 1980 landslide that the New Deal coalition was finally broken – after dominating American politics for 48 years.

One difference between the Clinton and Roosevelt models is what happened to the trade unions under their administrations.

It's been said by some historians that much of the New Deal – the “bank holiday”, the injection of public funds into the economy and so on – was actually a continuation of policies that Herbert Hoover and the Republicans had started. That may be true. But there was one piece of legislation the Republicans would never have passed: the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

The significance of the NLRA was that it lead to a massive growth of industrial unions. Those unions provided the foundation for the New Deal coalition that dominated American politics for nearly a half century.

It was by enabling workers to organize themselves that Roosevelt permanently transformed America. Many of the other New Deal laws have long since been forgotten – but unions remain a force in America even today.

Clinton, on the other hand, did not enact new legislation to make it easier for unions to organize. Despite strong union backing for Clinton, the unions received very little in the eight years of Democratic rule from 1993-2001.

To really, truly change America (or any other country), you need strong and independent trade unions. They are the bedrock of democracy. They are the engine of social change.

That's why unions today have made the enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) central to their legislative program. It should be President Obama's top priority.

The EFCA will enable unions to secure workplace recognition using card check. It will make it much harder for employers to terrorize workers into rejecting unions. If enacted, unions will grow.

If you can get this part right, if you can end the climate of fear in American workplaces and allow unions to flourish, a second New Deal coalition becomes possible.

America doesn't need a one-term Democratic president. For real change, the country needs decades of liberal Democratic rule – just as it had in the years that the New Deal coalition dominated the country's politics.

Those were the decades that created the American middle class.

No other plank in the Democratic platform – not health insurance, not ending poverty, not even dealing successfully with climate change – will be possible in a country where unions represent only a tiny fraction of the workforce.

Strong unions are the key to making real change happen. Everyone who voted for Obama must know that. It's a message the unions have got to get out.

The question for President Obama and the Democratic Congress is whether they will emulate Clinton's failure or Roosevelt's success.


Eric Lee, who I think I remember from the early days of DSOC, is exactly right. Undoing the intentional and careless damage of the Bush-Delay-Gingrich years will take years of liberal government. That demands a liberal governing majority, which needs a stronger, reinvigorated labor movement.

David A. Guberman

First President, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action

First President, Americans for Peace Now

The only amendment I would make to your excellent post is that the Republicans need to be dragged to the left. If the Republicans become even more extreme, tht might well facilitate "decades of liberal Democratic rule" but the way of democracy is that parties rotate in and out of power. You want structural, durable change in a progressive direction that forces Republicans to operate more or less within a progressive paradigm or consensus. In other words you need them to be Clinton to Obama's Reagan (or Blair to Thatcher or Eisenhower to Roosevelt). Fortunately I think Obama understands this, which was the source of his controversial remarks about Reagan during the primaries.

"The EFCA will enable unions to secure workplace recognition using card check. It will make it much harder for employers to terrorize workers into rejecting unions. If enacted, unions will grow."

How will removing the secret ballot from union elections make intimidation less likely? The opposite seems more probable: history seems to show that vote buying, intimidation, and retaliation are more likely when you can't vote in private

"Ensure Freedom to Unionize: Obama and Biden believe that workers should have the freedom to choose whether to join a union without harassment or intimidation from their employers. Obama cosponsored and is strong advocate for the Employee Free Choice Act, a bipartisan effort to assure that workers can exercise their right to organize. He will continue to fight for EFCA's passage and sign it into law."
This is a quote from Obama's official campaign web site, so I believe that his intentions are crystal clear and that he will honour them. But, come on Eric, it can't be "President Obama's top priority". You yourself point out: "Top priorities will include grappling with the economic crisis, climate change and health care". And then there's the little matter of two wars and security.



Actually, I worded that poorly. It's not President Obama's top legislative priority, but it is the unions', as the Washington Post reported yesterday. And from the long-term perspective of winning not only a second term but ensuring Democratic dominance for a generation, growing the trade union movement as a part of the New New Deal coalition is vital. Without the unions, no strong coalition for 2012 and beyond. That's the point I was trying to make.

EFCA card check doesn't remove the secret ballot. It amends law to allow card check.