By Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa
No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has had the opportunity to positively impact the lives of every American that Barack Obama has before him. He has inherited quite a mess, but I know that he is up to the challenges that lie ahead.
Last month’s dreadful auto sales are just one indication of how bad things have gotten. GM and Ford’s U.S. sales plunged by a third in December, Chrysler’s by more than half.
Working families in Detroit and across the Midwest have long suffered the effects of a declining industrial base. More recently the housing market’s disintegration spread the pain to Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and Florida. Finally, America’s deep troubles swamped everyone when the global financial system teetered on the brink of collapse.
It didn’t happen by accident. It happened because Wall Street captured our government and held the middle class hostage. Under the Bush regime, America became a place where financial plunderers were rewarded lavishly and work was no longer respected. In 2007, the top private-equity and hedge fund managers earned more in 10 minutes than average workers earned all year.
It wasn’t important anymore to make sure middle-class workers earned decent wages. The Labor Department became a useful tool for predatory employers. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao ignored flagrant union busting and the widespread theft of wages and benefits.
Nor did it matter any more if people were killed or maimed on the job or in transit or in their homes. OSHA simply quit enforcing workplace safety rules. We opened our borders to dangerous Mexican trucks and our markets to Chinese goods, but we didn’t require them to meet U.S. standards. We sent our planes to South Korea and El Salvador to be repaired by mechanics who don’t meet U.S. requirements.
Somehow we forgot that our prosperity and growth depended on a solid industrial base. In the name of a pleasant fantasy called “free-trade” we sent our factories overseas and pauperized the workers left behind. Regulatory agencies created to serve and protect the middle class were allowed to atrophy. Our infrastructure crumbled.
I have confidence that Obama understands the cause and the consequence of our decay. He worked as a community organizer in the shadow of the abandoned steel mills on Chicago’s South Side. He has written that continued globalization will result in an America we don’t want for ourselves or our children – an America where the rich can buy anything they want and everyone else works in insecure, low-paying service jobs.
Obama said he’ll review bad trade deals like NAFTA, and I believe him. I also expect him to support reforms that set standards for trade agreements, restore congressional oversight and require reviews of existing trade pacts.
I expect him to start the long, slow process of restoring our regulatory agencies so they do what they were supposed to do. He has, for example, pledged that he will close the border to dangerous Mexican trucks. He has said he is concerned about the practice of fixing U.S. airplanes overseas. He is no foe of regulation, having said that flexible and sensitive regulation can spur private sector innovation and investment in the energy sector.
He supports the most significant labor law reform in decades: the Employee Free Choice Act. Passage of that bill will restore some balance to the relationship between Wall Street and workers. Incoming Labor Secretary Hilda Solis will revive OSHA and fine abusive employers.
Of course, President Obama’s first order of business must be to resuscitate the economy. Then he has to restore our ability to make things. And he has to revitalize our government institutions and rebuild our infrastructure.
Maybe he can rest on the seventh day.