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Why Jack Lew’s Labor Views Matter

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Elias Isquith (and some commenters here) is skeptical that Jack Lew’s anti-graduate student union history matters for his nomination for Secretary of Treasury. He bases it on two points.

One, we don’t know enough about Lew’s actions while at the NYU to draw any definitive conclusions; he certainly wasn’t working in concert with or on behalf of the organizers. Yet it’s important to appreciate that this wasn’t his job. If he made some kind of decisive push against them, one that wouldn’t have happened in his absence, then that’s significant and something lefties are right to find appalling. But we don’t know — maybe we can find out during Senate hearings, though I doubt it.

We don’t know. But we should. If you are being nominated to lead the president’s economic team, your positions on extremely important economic issues such as the support of workers to have union representation should be a litmus test. As a progressive Democrat, I believe that an economy without high unionization rates is an economy that makes life very difficult for working and middle class people. Democrats should be supporting unionization anywhere and everywhere. We need all the people involved in the president’s economic team to have the interests of working-class people in mind. Or at the very least not have a history of fighting against the institutions most responsible for creating the middle-class.

Second and more important is whether or not Lew will actually be influencing policy rather than merely implementing it. The 2012 elections resulted in something of a two-sided political retrenchment, with the perpetuation of the status quo near-guaranteeing that no stimulus is in the offing for 2013. The near-term policy goal for liberals? Less austerity than there might be otherwise — at best. (Not quite Braveheart’s “Freedom!” when it comes to rallying cries.)

This I find dubious. The Secretary of Treasury does far more than just implement policy others create. The Secretary of Treasury is a central person of any president’s economic team. Tim Geithner was absolutely vital in creating the economic policies of the last four years. It’s true that if Lew bucked the no-stimulus, no-union trend, he might not be nominated for the position. But again, we need to demand that the people who are creating economic policy for working-class people support the right of those people to the representation of their choice on the job. That’s not just at Treasury, but in all major economic appointments.

And even if both sides have agreed that there will be no stimulus in 2013, so what? Progressives are just supposed to say OK and live with it? That’s not an effective political strategy. We need to speak loud for economic justice and demand it from our party leaders. That includes through demanding that his economic team stand for policies that not only resist cuts in Medicare, but promote workers getting a larger piece of the pie from their bosses. As I’ve stated many times before, the time to create change is between electoral cycles, not during the election itself. One way to do this is to for progressives to hold the president accountable in appointments, not sweeping issues like this under the rug.

Obama has marginalized the Department of Labor from his administration’s central economic planning team. There’s little evidence that he really cares all that much about organized labor and won’t expend political capital promoting its agenda. Even when he could bring labor and its supporters into the central circle without political damage, something he could have done beginning with the crafting of the stimulus package before he took office and continuing on every major economic issues since, he hasn’t chosen to do so. And the nomination of Lew is another piece of evidence that not supporting unions is just not that big a deal to this administration.

In the end, the question comes down to how important support for unionization should be within a Democratic administration. In my view, it’s a moral issue, the equivalent of the social issues that so engage us today. 50 years ago, supporting organized labor would have been unquestioned for most leading Democrats (non-Dixiecrats at least). Today, no. I think that’s wrong. I think involvement in anti-union campaigns is deeply immoral behavior.

Read Shawn Gude for more.

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