Politics & Policy

Union Man

Whither the Labor Department under Obama?

Tuesday’s House labor hearing on “Wage Theft” was supposed to be pretty lively. Left-wing advocacy groups had brought grievances against the Bush Department of Labor to the sympathetic chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor, Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.). Career employees in the Government Accountability Office had anecdotal evidence that Labor’s Wage and Hour Division is failing to enforce the law against employers who deny employees their wages, and they’d agreed to do a study to investigate.

In the end, outrage over the Bush administration’s supposed oppression of workers ran thin in the hearing room. You can’t argue with numbers: Last year, the Department of Labor recovered more than triple the amount in unjustly withheld wages ($220,613,703 in all), for almost triple the number of wronged workers (a total of 341,624), than it did ten years earlier under the Clinton administration.

But another real reason to watch this hearing was the testimony of Kim Bobo, executive director of the group Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ).

Bobo’s invitation to testify alongside three government officials indicates that she is a serious Democratic player. Her group, which sends religious seminarians to work for labor unions, has only a $2 million budget, but Bobo is nonetheless well-known in religious Left circles — a labor leader and community organizer, a Chicagoan who has run in the same activist circles as Barack Obama.

Bobo could be an obvious choice for the Obama Labor Department, perhaps as head of the Wage and Hour Division that was the subject of the hearing. Her group already works closely with WHD, and her positions on labor issues are identical to Obama’s.

It was unfortunate that Bobo did not deliver the most provocative part of her testimony orally: In a written document submitted before the hearing, she called for an expansion of the number of Wage and Hour investigators from 750 to “more than 12,500” — this is a factor of more than 16, and such an expansion would nearly double the size of the entire 15,000-employee Department of Labor. For perspective, the section of Labor that protects workers from union abuses (the Office of Labor and Management Standards or OLMS) has 350 employees in all, and Democrats have been trying to shrink it. The Democratic Congress froze OLMS’s 2008 budget at the previous year’s levels.

By his own account in The Audacity of Hope, Senator Obama is a union man, supportive of this one-sided approach to labor issues. Of his union supporters and endorsers, Obama writes: “I owe those unions. When their leaders call, I do my best to call them back right away.”

In this light, someone like Bobo would be an appropriate choice for an Obama administration. Her group is a significant if small member in the left-labor activist complex. When the editorial board of the Las Vegas Review-Journal recently attacked IWJ as a “union front group” that was attacking local homebuilders, two IWJ board members protested that the group has only four union leaders (including Linda Chavez-Thompson of the AFL-CIO) on its board, and only receives only 12 percent of its funds from unions . This amounted to $266,000 in 2007.

According to a 2004 profile of Bobo in the San Francisco Chronicle, she “has spent the last 30 years trying to get people of faith to see the connection between their Bibles and the federal budget, to see ‘moral value’ in tax policies that would bridge the widening gulf between rich and poor.” Like Barack Obama, she is a principled believer in the idea that high taxes are a moral imperative. Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope: “I consider the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to be both fiscally irresponsible and morally troubling.

She shares another similarity to Obama in that she spent ten years as an instructor at the Midwest Academy, an organization inspired by Saul Alinsky that, according to the Discover the Networks project, trains community organizers in “tactics of direct action, targeting, confrontation, and intimidation.” The Academy has also received money from the Woods Fund, the foundation on whose board Obama once served. She has written one book about left-wing Christian community organizing in the Alinsky mode and contributed to another.

In December 2005, Bobo and Father Michael Pfleger were two among many “religious Left” signers of an anti-Wal-Mart letter, part of a broader, union-backed campaign against the company. The letter is hysterical in tone: “It is hard to imagine why Wal-Mart would consciously choose to make 1.3 million workers suffer in the name of ‘low prices,’ a suffering we can no longer let stand,” it reads.

Whomever he appoints to the top jobs at Labor, it is worth remembering that a President Obama will create a Labor Department that does exactly what unions want. He has given several hints of this. “We need a president,” he said in April, “who knows it’s the Department of Labor and not the Department of Management. A president who strengthens our unions by letting them do what they do best — organize our workers.”

But that is not what unions do best, as their declining American membership demonstrates. Unions are best at electing Democrats, and they often do so with the dues money that members cough up — many of them unwillingly. In 2006, unions spent $58 million to elect Democrats. In this election, the AFL-CIO is giving Obama an advance for his prospective pro-union policy by running ads against his presidential opponent that FactCheck.org has documented to be false.

Obama has not condemned the unions’ lies. After all, he “owes those unions.” On the issue of labor and employment, this is the substance of Obama’s “new politics.” It is strangely familiar.

– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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