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Why Jack Lew’s Labor Views Matter


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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  • Paul

    I guess I find myself skeptical of your argument here. First I’m not convinced that Unionism is a good solution for graduate students anyway … This could be personal experience and as an Econ Grad at ISU in Ag I was well funded, well paid and a fairly clear cut set of responsibilities and jobs none of which were any more onerous than what my Adviser/boss was doing.

    I think this is missing the forest for the trees – the problem of funding education is the bigger issue, and I don’t see how graduate student unions really help much at all here. Its not a career (or at least is should not be) and the diversity of money, support and goals in various fields is so vast that I think you are often talking about more or separate ‘Industries’.

    Considering the work load and stress and scramble for funding that is so much of the life of Research Academic no a days – it likely better to wash out at the Graduate level before you rack up those loans…

    I can appreciate the calling for an agenda and sticking to it but this a bit counter productive in the sense that you still need run the country. The root of Progressive is progress, and so yes its it easy to be disappointed with Obama. But if progress is made I prefer to look on the bright side.

    So Lew is maybe not going to save Unions from their decline and many self inflicted wounds, and rabid hostility from the Right – What Treasury Secretary would anyway? He does seem good at defending core parts of the New Deal/Great Society/Democratic agenda from the same types who hate union reflexively and that is the key battle the Administration is facing

    • JL

      Being a grad student should not be a career, but it’s a stage of a career, an apprenticeship stage. And being a teaching or research assistant or working an on-campus job is labor. Depending on the university and department it may be well-treated or poorly-treated labor, but it’s labor, and labor should be allowed collective bargaining. Why should something have to be “a career”, as opposed to merely a job*, to be labor?

      I don’t think you’ll see much opposition to, or denying of the importance of, better education funding here. They’re both important issues. Also keep in mind here that NYU is a private university, and doesn’t depend on state-level funding the way that public universities do.

    • Tybalt

      “I’m not convinced that Unionism is a good solution for graduate students anyway”

      In a mature democracy, or indeed one tends to see workers allowed to make their own decisions on this. This is especially true as they are the ones most proximate to the particular workplace.

      It’s not the place of responsible bosses to bust unions, it’s their place to negotiate with them. Jack Lew showed that he can’t be trusted to respect the interests of working people.

  • Paul

    Man I hate seeing all my spelling and grammar errors I cannot edit…

  • Marc

    In a practical sense we need a solid negotiator in the room to deal with the Republicans. I’m leery of looking across a wide range of issues and vetoing people who have ever disagreed with me on any subject.

    • So what I’m hearing is that potentially being an active union-buster is acceptable within the Democratic Party?

      • Marc

        “Potentially” is doing a lot of work there. If you were talking about the CEO of Walmart that would be one thing. This is also true if we were talking about someone who dismisses unions in principle (e.g. most elected Republicans). But being the guy who ran the budget at NYU while there was a union dispute isn’t the same thing as being a union-buster. And the debate around graduate student unions has some unique elements; the boundary between student and employee, for example, is not clean, and there are a lot of people broadly supportive of unions who don’t think that they are appropriate in that context. They can be right or wrong, but opposition to unions in one context doesn’t translate automatically to opposition to unions overall.

        • This.

          While I disagreed with NYU’s actions — well, “found them abhorrent” is a better description of my views at the time — I also recognize it is possible to be pro-union and (1) not support graduate-student unionization and (2) follow the policy on the matter decided by the institution at which you are an administrator.

          The proper step is to force Lew to address union issues and make verbal policy commitments. If he’s not willing to do so in a way that satisfies progressives, then its time to oppose him.

          • Tybalt

            I think that’s a very poor negotiating strategy.

            If you want Jack Lew to make concessions and commitments and to address issues of interest to labor, oppose him first based on his record and then have him address the obvious concerns that arise from his actions.

            • Sure, if that’s the forcing mechanism, I’m fine with that.

  • witless chum

    It’s worth torpedoing this guy, whatever the merits of him, to put out the message that even flirting with antiunionism makes you persona non grata in the Democratic Party. Given that labor gets out there for the Dems even time, it’s the least you can do. There’s plenty of people who can be treasury secretary.

    The left needs to treat people like this the way Republicans treat people who have sane views on abortion. It’s not nice or fair, but it’s how to run a political party.

  • Joseph Slater

    Two things. First, respectfully Marc, I am generally skeptical of arguments along the lines of, “well, unions are OK for *these* kind of employees, but not *this* type of worker that unions are now trying to organize. There’s a long and fairly inglorious history of that sort of things, including but not limited to objections to unions for industrial/unskilled labor, public employees, and folks in medical institutions. Unions are trying to adapt to the new economy, including new ways educational institutions are organizing work relations.

    Second, respectfully Paul, I was a grad student myself once, but I’m also generally skeptical of arguments along the lines of, “well, I did this kind of work once, and I didn’t feel as if I needed a union in that job, so therefore other folks in jobs with the same title probably don’t need unions.” The grad stduents at NYU felt a union would be helpful to them, and that’s over 90% of the argument for me. Note also the significant numnber of grad student unions at public sector universities (U-Mich and Wisconsin, just to name a couple). They seem to be working fine. You are right that this is some ways a close legal question under the NLRA, but I’m unsympathetic to U.S. law in the way it excludes or arguably excludes vast numbers of working people from coverage under labor laws. See also the “supervisory” exemption from the NLRA.

    • Marc

      There are huge differences between disciplines. In the sciences the students tend to be fully supported with stipends and relatively low teaching loads. The situation is very different in the humanities, and that’s a major tension when considering unionization. The union demands tend to be worse than the benefits the science students already have, and this is part of why such drives have been historically unpopular among them. The benefit aspect is a solid point in favor of collective bargaining; but the “student” aspect is also real and union supporters tend to underestimate how important it is perceived to be by people with reservations.

      In any case, my main point was not to argue the virtues of graduate student unions; it’s just to point out that there is a pretty large group of people who are sympathetic to unions in a broader context but not in this one.

      • Joseph Slater

        As to the practical difficulties across disciplines, I’m not saying they don’t exist, but (i) that’s true in a lot of “wall to wall” bargaining units that include a variety of job categories, but we have allowed those since the New Deal, and (ii) again, actual existing grad student unions in public universities have found ways to work despite those differences.

        More broadly, my point was that we should defer, at least at the margins, to the workers themselves as to whether a union is a good/appropriate idea. If a group of workers want the right to form a union and think unionization would be appropriate for them, I think the pro-labor position, and (at least in the vast majority of cases) general good policy position is to allow them to organize, rather than saying, “yeah, but based on my personal experience, I’m not sure I would want a union in that job.” Remember, if my argument wins, that just gives a group of grad students the right to organize if they want it — if they don’t, they certainly don’t have to. Your position seems to be at least sympathetic to the “they shouldn’t have the right to organize even if they want to.”

    • Tybalt

      I am generally skeptical of arguments along the lines of, “well, unions are OK for *these* kind of employees, but not *this* type of worker that unions are now trying to organize.

      And in fact the most common argument of this type is what we’ve seen rolled out in Wisconsin… that unions are not OK for public employees.

      • Tybalt

        Sorry… posted too early… and to conclude my point, I think such views should be unwelcome in the Democratic Party. Democrat bosses should not be attempting to drive an anti-unionization wedge into labor democracy.

        • Joseph Slater

          Absolutely. I gave the example of public employees in my first post.

  • Bill Murray

    Even if Lew weren’t at least passively anti-uinon, he still is a poor choice for Treasury http://www.thenation.com/article/172154/inconvenient-truth-about-jack-lew#

    When asked by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a Senate confirmation hearing in 2010, when Lew was nominated to be head of the Office of Management and Budget, whether the deregulation pushed by Rubin and former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan had “contributed significantly” to the banking crisis, Lew responded:

    “Senator, I don’t consider myself an expert in some of these aspects of the financial industry. My experience in the financial industry has been as a manager, not an investment adviser. My sense, as someone who has generally been familiar with these trends, is that the problems in the financial industry preceded deregulation. There was an increasing emphasis on highly abstract leveraged derivative products that got us to the point, that, in the period of time leading up to the financial crisis, risks were taken, they weren’t fully embraced, they weren’t well understood. I don’t personally know the extent to which deregulation drove it, but I don’t think deregulation was the proximate cause.”

    Really? That is a statement of such deliberate ignorance that one must marvel at Lew’s audacity in uttering it. He was one of the top economic officials in the Clinton administration when the president signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act into law that declared all of those “derivative products” exempt from the reach of any existing government regulation or regulatory agency. It was aimed at silencing the warning of Brooksley Born, who, as head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, attempted to control the burgeoning market in the toxic assets that have carried such a huge human price in foreclosed homes and lost jobs.

    Not only did Lew go along with the Clinton administration’s policy, he continued to endorse a radical deregulatory approach to financial markets as a board member of the Hamilton Project, funded by Rubin at the Brookings Institution. Lew’s myopic view of the origins of the economic meltdown, at odds even with Greenspan’s own admission of culpability, hardly qualifies him for the top economic position in the Obama administration. As Sanders told the Post this week, “In my view, we need a Treasury secretary who is prepared to stand up to corporate America and their powerful lobbyists and fight for policies that protect the working families in our country. I do not believe Mr. Lew is that person.”

    • Tybalt

      Bill, that’s excellent. Treasury needs a leader who understands how the systemic risks work.

    • witless chum

      Okay, I’m convinced. He needs to be opposed on both party orthodoxy and substantive grounds.

  • Bruce Vail

    There are good reasons to oppose Lew but I am not sure that being a union-buster is one of them.

    It should be recalled that NYU’s opposition to unions pre-dated Lew’s employment there and continues unabated today, long after Lew’s departure. Denying union rights to NYU grad students has been a long-standing policy position of NYU senior leadership (and the position of numerous high-profile universities around the country), and Lew would have been extraordinary indeed if he had tried to buck that during his brief tenure.

    The Lew nomination is much sadder in the sense that it represents a pretty emphatic repudiation of the Hope & Change theme of 2008. Combined with nominations of party hack John Kerry and blood-stained Brennan, these nominations all send the signal that this administration has no commitment to change of any kind.

  • Bruce Vail

    Here is a prickly little point for you, Erik:

    There are many, many instances where the staff members of a union have crossed swords with the employer. It would be tiresome indeed to rummage through the NLRB records and identify all the cases where workers have taken action against the union officials who are responsible for labor relations at those organizations.

    Does that make all these union leaders immoral and unsuited to take government jobs? Do all the managers at the union – even mid-level and low-level managers — share responsibility for the labor relations policies of the organization?

    I am thinking specifically here of a guy like Andy Stern, who (in my mind) deserves consideration for the job just vacated by Hilda Solis. Aside from the fat that a Stern nomination is politically impossible right now, should he be excluded from consideration because the SEIU had had labor issues with its own staff?

    • Andy Stern should be excluded from consideration for Secretary of Labor for many, many reasons.

      • Bruce Vail

        Hah! Agreed.

  • Dennis

    “The union demands tend to be worse than the benefits the science students already have, and this is part of why such drives have been historically unpopular among them.”

    As someone who has bargained a graduate employee union contract, this is easy: 1) Don’t seek a full pay scale. Pursue minimums, then let science faculty and grads pursue grants that result in higher salaries. 2) Make sure science grads have access to good health insurance. Humanities and social science students, in my experience, understand full well that there’s more money in science and engineering – we just want something more closely resembling a living wage. We don’t care if we make the same as a geneticist or nuclear engineer.

    • Linnaeus

      As someone who has bargained a graduate employee union contract, this is easy: 1) Don’t seek a full pay scale. Pursue minimums, then let science faculty and grads pursue grants that result in higher salaries.

      This is exactly what my union local did and continues to do. We have “base rate” departments that pay no less than the wage floors in the contract, and “variable rate” departments that pay more based on what grants, etc. allow. Early on, there were some ASEs who opposed this because they didn’t like “two-tiering” the wage scale, but most folks were fine with it because they recognized it was a good way to keep a lot more folks on board with the union.

      And the health insurance is a big deal – in fact, I’d be willing to bet that that’s the most important issue for most of the people in our bargaining unit, even slightly more so than wages.

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