Barack Obama on Unions

Last Updated : Mar 03, 2011


President Obama is a strong supporter of private and public unions and supports the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, otherwise known as "Card Check." This support for the EFCA has been repeated in numerous campaign and post-election speeches, and by Senator Obama's cosponsorship.

In 2007 and 2008, Senator Obama wrote letters to the CEO of Tesco - a british food retailer - asking them to negotiate with unions in the US to avoid a work stoppage.

In 2007, Senator Obama cosponsored the Patriot Employers Act. This legislation gave tax breaks to companies that paid a certain rate, paid for a set rate of medical benefits, kept their work done in the US, and were neutral to allowing their workers to organize.

Also in 2007, Senator Obama co-sponsored the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2007. This act provides collective bargaining rights for public safety officers employed by states or local governments.

After assuming office, President Obama issued 4 executive orders doing the following things:

  • Post notice that workers have the right to organize and the right to opt out of having union dues go to political purposes
  • Set requirements for new contracts to hire the previous workers
  • Set requirements that when a company is sold, old workers must be given the right to take their old job before it is given to someone else
  • Prevent companies from taking tax benefits for efforts to inform the workers about the benefits of non-unionizing
  • Set requirements for project labor agreements

While in office, President Obama appointed Craig Becker in a recess appointment. Mr. Becker has a well established history of statements which indicate he does not believe that companies should be granted no say in negotiations dealing with labor.


Involvement with Tesco

In November of 2007, Senator Obama sent a letter to the CEO of Tesco - a British food retailer - asking them to negotiate with food workers unions concerning the conditions at their US shops.

In June of 2008, Senator Obama sent another letter to Tesco CEO Terrry Leahy. In this letter, he repeated his request to have the company engage with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.


Campaign Speech - Unions

In August of 2008, Senator Obama gave a speech as part of his presidential campaign where he spoke about his support for unions and his support for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. Senator Obama states that unions are to thank for weekends and 8 hour work days and that even people who are not in a union are still benefitting.


Campaign Video - IBEW

In a September 2008 campaign video promoted by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Senator Obama spoke about his support for unions. He specifically stated that it was time that the US had a President that had "walked on picket lines" and "didn't choke on the word union."


Speech to SEIU

In 2008, Senator Obama spoke at SEIU and thanked them for their support in 2004 and asked for their support in 2008.


Executive Order 13496

This Executive Order reimposes the requirement that successive contractors offer a right of first refusal of employment to employees of the prior contractor. This requirement was removed by a 2001 executive order. The new order also imposes new obligations for successor service contract employers to hire their predecessors’ employees.

Known as the successorship doctrine, an employer may be forced to bargain with a union that represented its predecessor’s employees, even though the union has not been certified as its own employees’ representative, if:

  • the new employer draws a majority of its workforce from the bargaining unit which the union previously represented;
  • the new employer is engaged in the same general business as its predecessor
  • the bargaining unit has not been changed dramatically.

Whether an employer is deemed a “successor” often hinges on the employer’s decision whether to hire a large number of its predecessor’s workers or, for legitimate non-discriminatory reasons, staff its workforce with other employees.

Recognizing that government service contracts are frequently transferred, allegedly resulting in employee turnover and the possibility of loss in productivity and efficiency, President Obama has changed the rules for many non-union government contractors involved in government service contracts. Under the new Executive Order, employers assuming government service contracts must offer their predecessor employers’ employees the right of first refusal in positions for which they are qualified. The right of first refusal must extend for at least 10 days, only after which may a successor contractor announce position openings to a wider audience.

Because successorship for collective bargaining purposes is dictated largely by whether a majority of those employees hired by a new contractor worked for the previous unionized contractor, this Executive Order effectively forces non-union contractors assuming a federal service contract to hire their predecessors’ employees rather than to hire the best qualified employees based upon non-discriminatory reasons. If a majority of the new employer’s workforce is made up of the predecessor’s employees, it is likely that the new employer will be required to bargain with the union as a successor employer. (Text taken from source)


Executive Order 13494

In January of 2009, President Obama issued an executive order dealing with nondisplacement of qualified workers under service contracts. The Executive Order revokes Executive Order 13201 and imposes new obligation to inform employees of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). The order requires all qualifying federal contractors to post a notice advising non-union employees of certain rights. These rights include: the right not to join a union, and the right to "opt out" of paying that portion of dues used by unions for political contributions or other activity not related to administration of a collective bargaining agreement. The latter right had been recognized three years earlier by the United States Supreme Court in the decision Communication Workers v. Beck.

Also, the Executive Order requires that prime contractors include the new contract clauses in “every” subcontract and puts the burden on prime contractors to enforce these requirements on their subcontractors. The Executive Order directs the Secretary of Labor to issue regulations providing details about how contractors are to enforce the obligations against their subcontractors. (Text taken from source)


Executive Order 13495

This Executive Order would make union avoidance costs disallowed expenses. Government contracts increasingly are awarded on a cost-reimbursement basis. Critics argue that they give contractors no incentive to control costs. Contractors, on the other hand, insist these contracts are appropriate when the total expenditure over the life of a contract is uncertain.

Under the cost-reimbursement structure, government agencies pay vendors for costs incurred on a contract up to a ceiling. Often, the contracts include bonus provisions for timely completion and conservative spending. In contrast, private sector contracting is typically performed on a fixed-price or time-and-materials basis.

A contractor’s ability to achieve an acceptable profit margin on cost reimbursement contracts is determined largely by “costs” that can be reimbursed under the contract. The question of “allowable” costs is the source of extensive regulation and endless billing disputes. Numerous categories of “unallowable” costs have been created, including certain advertising costs, public relations costs, alcoholic beverages, bad debt, defense and prosecution of criminal and civil proceedings, entertainment costs, lobbying costs to improperly influence federal employees or officers, fines and penalties, membership costs in civil organizations and pre-contract costs.

Through this Executive Order, President Obama has added a new category of unallowable costs. Effective immediately and as to all contracts resulting from solicitations issued on or after the effective date, contractors may not seek reimbursement for any expense undertaken to persuade employees whether or not to join a union. Covered expenses include, but are not limited to, the cost of preparing materials, the hiring of legal counsel or consultants, holding meetings (including the cost of salaries for attendees) and planning or conducting such persuasive activity.

These new prohibitions introduce a significant hurdle for non-union contractors on cost reimbursement contracts seeking to remain union free. New accounting procedures may be needed to segregate not only costs for outside counsel and consultants, but also expenditures such as payroll costs for a 10-minute meeting or the paper and copying expenses for a bulletin board poster. (Text taken from source)


Executive Order 13498

Executive Order 13498 authorized executive agencies of the federal government to require every contractor or subcontractor on a large-scale construction project to negotiate or become a party to a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) with one or more labor organizations. 

A PLA is a pre-hire collective bargaining agreement between contractors and one or more unions that establishes the terms and conditions of employment for a specific construction project. The stated rationale for this Order is that a PLA can promote the “efficient and expeditious completion of Federal construction contracts” by ensuring a “steady supply of labor” and the avoidance of “labor disputes” which can delay the project.

This Executive Order specifically revokes contrary Executives Orders issued by former President George W. Bush in 2001 and reinstates a Clinton-administration rule.

Specifically, the Order applies to government-funded projects providing for “construction, rehabilitation, alteration, conversion, extension, repair or improvement of buildings, highways or other real property” where the total cost to the federal government is $25 million or more. The Order has a broad sweep. It provides that the contracting government agency may mandate a contractor to use a PLA if use of such agreement will:

  • advance the Federal Government's interest in achieving economy and efficiency in Federal procurement, producing labor-management stability, and ensuring compliance with laws and regulations governing safety and health, equal employment opportunity, labor and employment standards, and other matters; and
  • be consistent with law.

Further, any PLA provided for under the Order will bind all contractors and subcontractors on the project. (Text taken from source)


Appointment of Craig Becker to NLRB

In March of 2010, President Obama used a recess appointment to put in place numerous people without the consent of Congress. The most controversial of those appointments was Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. The reason for the controversy was that Mr Becker is known to have a rather extreme view in terms of the rights of employers to determine things such as how much to pay their employees.

In a 1993 Minnesota Law Review article, written when he was a UCLA professor, Mr. Becker noted that employers should be barred from NLRB meetings even though they are guaranteed a spot at the table by law.

In 2005, Mr Becker wrote about the Employee Free Choice Act in the Berkley Journal of Employment and Labor Law.

Mr. Becker also wrote that even though legally guaranteed, employers should not be allowed to question voter eligibility or the validity of the election results in elections to determine if a group is to unionize.

Mr. Becker has also stated in a 2005 Berkley paper that workers should not be allowed to not have a union, only the option to choose which union.


Voting Record

The Employee Free Choice Act

In June of 2007, the Senate voted on a cloture motion to get pass a filibuster of the Employee Free Choice Act. The measure failed to move past a filibuster in a 51-48 vote. Barack Obama voted in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act.

Barack Obama voted in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act.


Sponsored and Cosponsored Legislation

Session-110; Bill Number-S 1041; Employee Free Choice Act of 2007 - Cosponsor

A bill to amend the National Labor Relations Act to establish an efficient system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts, and for other purposes.

Session-110; Bill Number-S 2123; Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2007 - Cosponsor

A bill to provide collective bargaining rights for public safety officers employed by States or their political subdivisions.

Session-109; Bill Number-S 842; Employee Free Choice Act - Cosponsor

A bill to amend the National Labor Relations Act to establish an efficient system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts, and for other purposes.

Session-110; Bill Number-S 1945; Patriot Employers Act - Cosponsor

Amends the Internal Revenue Code to allow a taxpayer certified as a Patriot employer by the Secretary of the Treasury a tax credit for one percent of such employer's taxable income. Defines a "Patriot employer" as any taxpayer who: (1) maintains its headquarters in the United States; (2) pays at least 60% of the health care premiums of its employees; (3) observes a policy requiring neutrality in employee organizing drives; (4) maintains or increases the number of its full-time workers in the United States relative to its full-time workers outside of the United States; (5) provides full differential salary and insurance benefits for all National Guard and Reserve employees called to active duty; and (6) provides its employees with a certain level of compensation and retirement benefits.


[1] Website: Article: Craig Becker: In His Own Words Author: NA Accessed on: 03/03/2011

[2] Website: The Guardian Article: Obama backs union in Tesco fight Author: Julia Finch Accessed on: 03/03/2011

[3] Website: The Mirror Article: Barack Obama's Threatening Letter to Tesco Boss Author: Kevin Macguire Accessed on: 03/03/2011

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