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Jack Lew: Union-Buster


Related to my dismissal of Obama’s words about Hilda Solis yesterday (and here’s Dave Jamieson with a good run-down of Solis’ term as Secretary of Labor, Josh Eidelson has a piece up about soon-to-be Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew’s union-busting past. Lew was COO at New York University when it busted the graduate student union in the mid 2000s. While it’s hard to pin down exactly what role he played, he was certainly central to the conflict:

By the time Jack Lew left his post as NYU COO to become COO of Citigroup Wealth Management, the six-month strike was over, and the union had lost.

When we talked last year – soon after Obama had promoted Lew from his OMB director to his chief of staff — Local 2110 president Maida Rosenstein told me that Lew had acted as “the point person” in “representing management’s position” against GSOC. She said that NYU’s choice to stop recognizing the union meant the membership “has had to organize from scratch.” But when I asked if she thought Lew’s role should have disqualified him for the promotion, she answered, “I would love it if he had a chief of staff who had a direct history of being very pro-union. But he was in charge of the budget at NYU. Within that context, he did what he did. Maybe he’s learned something from it.”

Maybe, but I doubt it.

Noam Scheiber has a much more positive view of Lew. But then Scheiber and Eidelson are talking about different issues. It’s entirely possible that Lew is very strong on Medicare and Medicaid. I sure hope so. But that hardly he means he is strong on organized labor. One could say this about many Democrats in 2013.

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  • wengler

    Let’s be honest here: It’s not going to take much to be better than Tim Geithner. Also Treasury Secretary is the position designated to make rich people feel good about their money and themselves. Among that crowd, I’m sure busting a little student union is cute.

  • Only Adult in the Room

    Waaah emoprog go in the corner with Matt Stoller and shine each other’s Green Latern.

    • If there’s 2 people with a ton in common, it’s myself and Matt Stoller…..

      • John

        You have both co-hosted a television show with Russell Brand, for one thing.

        • Brett

          And Erik is a huge fan of 3rd parties.

          Sending Stoller to bed since 2010.

  • rea

    Lew is being nominated as Secretary of Treasury, not Secretary of Labor. The Secretary of Treasury doesn’t play a big role in labor policy.

    • Secretary of Treasury plays a huge role in Obama’s economic team that does decide policy that affects labor.

      • JKTHs

        Exactly. It might not be as direct as DoL but it’s kind of hard to separate economic policy and labor policy much.

        • John

          What economic policies favored by Lew are bad for labor? Opposition to graduate student unionization is really neither here nor there for that.

          And if there’s one thing I learned from my time in the leadership of a grad student unionization attempt, it’s that there’s a ton of otherwise pro-labor types who get a real bee in their bonnet over grad student unionization, in particular. The Grad School dean at the time, who took point on many of the anti-unionization efforts, was actually a left-wing labor historian.

          • Linnaeus

            it’s that there’s a ton of otherwise pro-labor types who get a real bee in their bonnet over grad student unionization, in particular.

            Which is unfortunate, given current trends in academic labor.

          • whinger

            Well, that’s impressive. How big a fucking moron does one have to be to spend one’s career studying labor injustices, then turn around and perpetrate some?

            I’m picturing a severe head injury, or possibly parents related by blood.

            • John

              It’s easy to believe something when your job depends on you believing it.

              Basically, a lot of professors don’t consider graduate students to really be workers. They think grad student unionization is an affectation – a bunch of privileged children playacting worker solidarity. And there’s a lot of “You are students, not employees, so you shouldn’t have bargaining rights.”

              There’s certainly some truth to both elements – the ranks of grad student unionization activists certainly included some people who seemed more interested in playacting worker solidarity than achieving actual goals; and certainly grad student employees, at my school at least, where grad students were generally used pretty sparingly to teach classes, are different from traditional workers.

              I think that most of these complaints are distractions from the basic issue, which is that grad student employees do real labor for the university, and that all workers deserve to have the right to collectively bargain if they so chose. But it made a lot of faculty, even left-leaning faculty, uncomfortable.

              • Linnaeus

                I think this sums it up pretty accurately, based on my experience in two (ultimately successful) ASE union drives.

              • justaguy

                While on a conference panel on the future of Marxism, the dean of graduate studies at my school was asked if Marxism was dead. He replied that it lived on in his heart, which I found just adorable. But, while not abjectly horrible, he’s not very good on graduate labor issues. When you become a bureaucrat, you start thinking in terms of the logic of the overall bureaucracy, no matter who you hold in your heart.

                I definitely agree that many people see academic labor as somehow “different”. David Graeber, who was denied tenure at Yale allegedly because of his pro grad student union advocacy, said that in academia you can rail against the oppressed anywhere, just so long as its not the guy who cleans your classroom. But that sense of academic labor as being somehow not work is what’s used to rationalize horrible labor practices. And if you look at the organization of large research universities, without grad students to TA, the entire business model falls apart.

                I can see what you mean with the playacting aspect – I see a lot of radicalism in my union that seems a little misplaced. But in my university, the union is the only institutional space that advocates for the interests of grad students. And that advocacy is over real issues – health insurance, my ability to pay the rent, maternity leave, etc. And if it weren’t for the insane anti-labor stance of the university as a whole, that radicalism might not be so common.

                • John

                  I agree with most of what you say, I think. I do think there’s a difference between actually existing grad student unions and grad student unionization campaigns – the fact that existing unions are already bargaining over real issues gives them a degree of credibility that organizing campaigns don’t have. And at the elite private schools where many of the organizing campaigns of the last decade took place, grad students are much less integral to the teaching mission of the university than they are at the large public universities where most of the established unions exist.

                • Fake Irishman

                  I like what John is saying here. Helping negotiate a contract for my grad local really helped me grapple with real issues of university policy. Sometimes it was a good lesson in organizing for gains and against university stupidity (Being a part of the union is when I really understood what having power meant for the first time). Sometimes though, it’s an interesting exercise in trying to hash out the best policy on a matter of mutual interest — like the vastly improved disability accommodation system we worked out for Grad Student Instructors.

          • david mizner

            You mean he doesn’t support corporate trade deals? That would be shocking given his history and the company he’s kept. More to the point, the entire ideology he espouses and embodies is hostile to labor.

            Worked for Clinton and helped deregulate the financial industry, doing his part to cause the financial crisis
            Worked on Wall Street and profited off the housing bubble and getting a million dollar bonus after we bailed out his company
            Walked back through the revolving door into the Obama administration

            On second thought, he’s perfect for the job — pretty much checks off all the boxes.

            • John

              Every conceivable Treasury Secretary in the real world is going to support free trade deals, whether or not they were involved in crushing grad student unions.

            • jeer9

              Yes, you really should read Bill Black’s analysis of the Lew appointment over at HuffPo to grasp how abysmal Obama has been and will continue to be on the financial/economic crisis.

      • Secretary of Treasury plays a huge role in Obama’s economic team that does decide policy that affects labor.

        If we’re using the phrase “affects labor” to mean “has consequences that people who work jobs will feel,” sure, but this seems to be an argument from vagueness. The questions here are about organizing rights, collective bargaining, and the attention given to organized labor’s issues by the administration.

  • Njorl

    Discovering that your Secretary of the Treasury is anti-union is like finding out your scorpion is venomous.

    • Colin Day

      Yes, but I don’t want to find out that it is venomous by having it actually bite me.

      • bluedog

        it is my nature

  • Scott Lemieux

    Wait, I was assured that Erskine Bowles was a lock.

    • JKTHs

      WaPo editorial board didn’t push hard enough.

    • John

      Remember this chestnut?

    • Wait, I was assured that Erskine Bowles was a lock.

      The appointment of Bowles was not just assumed, but used as evidence for arguments about the likely future course of the Obama administration on spending, budgets, and entitlements.

      Looking through the thread, I see several of the people who made such an argument weighing. None of them are bringing up spending, entitlements, or budgets.

  • Joe

    The linked piece also notes “Obama’s past appointments of Lew have not drawn outcry from the AFL-CIO, the UAW, or other major unions.”

  • IOKIYAR(ight-wing)

    “Opposition to … unionization” is an asset to Corporatist Dems and is cheered by the Very Serious ‘adults’ who thinks it’s pissy to expect to get paid for the work you do.

    You want to get _paid_ for the work you do? Corporatist shill says, “Waaah emoprog go in the corner with Matt Stoller and shine each other’s Green Latern.”

    Corporate Dems help Republicans gut American workers, piss on those trying to make positive changes, and then wonder why it’s hard to get working Dem voters out during midterm elections (assuming that isn’t the _plan_ of smarmy Corporate whores who think they’re the “Only Adult in the Room”?)

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