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Bill Fletcher Jr. on the ‘heresy’ of critiquing Obama and what he wants Obama to do

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Obama, hope and expectations Pt.2

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the next segment of our interview with Bill Fletcher. Bill works for a major American public sector union. He’s the author of the book Solidarity Divided, and he’s the editor-in-chief of the Web site Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So what are you looking for over the next four years? How will you judge President Obama as a success or a failure?

FLETCHER: With his foreign policy and domestic. And part of what is very concerning, Paul, is that there are a number of discussions within the political class, let’s say, within the United States that focus very much on Obama and domestic policy. And there’s almost, like, a level of denial to some extent about foreign policy, or as long as the image of the US improves, he will have done alright. I think that that’s problematic. So, domestically, and not in order of importance, we need a moratorium on foreclosures; we need the stimulus that he’s talking about in massive public jobs, which, as the Urban League would discuss, a Marshall Plan for the cities is what we really need, not just infrastructure in general, but a real redevelopment of the cities.

JAY: Which means public transit, roads, schools, hospitals, all of this.

FLETCHER: Exactly. Exactly. We need health care. And contrary to President Obama, I think we need single-payer health care.

JAY: Just to clarify that, just in case, ’cause that term gets used a lot by people who know the issue, but just explain very quickly what [inaudible]

FLETCHER: Essentially, Medicare for all.

JAY: And without private insurance companies, right?

FLETCHER: Exactly. Pulling the [inaudible]

JAY: European-Canadian-slash style.

FLETCHER: Precisely. Precisely. And then the labor law reform, the most immediate being the Employee Free Choice Act, which makes it easier for workers to join or form unions. So, domestically, those are the things that I’m looking for.

JAY: Now, just to be clear, because he could do a big stimulus package where they throw all kinds of money out for companies to, you know, invest in windmills and fix bridges and do that, give some money to cities and states, to quickly, you know, create some projects. But then what? So that stimulus, it’s only going to ripple so far in an economy of such profound crisis, and we’re still going to have a situation with people with, you know, relatively low wages and very high unemployment after this.

FLETCHER: Which is exactly why we need strong unions. I mean, I was thinking about your interview with Professor Galbraith. And we in the United States have been witnessing since the mid-1970s a fairly steady decline in the living standards of the average working person, and this declining living standard has been carried out a number of ways, including the suppression of unions, a change in tax policies, so greater levels of wealth were accumulated by the rich. And so, while productivity may have been going up, wage rates were going down. The problem for the average worker was that the way to handle that was through credit. And the credit might have been credit cards, and it ultimately, when it was the asset-inflation housing bubble, people started looking at their houses as an eternal source of income stability.

JAY: Second mortgage, third mortgage.

FLETCHER: Precisely. Precisely. And despite all of the warnings—.

JAY: You could also always say to yourself, you know, “If the worse comes to worse, at least I own my house.”

FLETCHER: That’s exactly right.

JAY: And then you didn’t.

FLETCHER: That’s right. Then you didn’t. People would buy a second home, thinking about retirement, and then it was gone. And what’s so important about this, Paul, is that it was an individual way of handling a structural crisis within capitalism.

JAY: So isn’t the real litmus test, then, going to be whether or not people’s real purchasing power improves or not?

FLETCHER: That’s right. That’s right.

JAY: And then, when everything else comes down to it, ’cause it seems to be the economic crisis comes out of these roots, as well as people’s wellbeing.

FLETCHER: Absolutely. I think on the domestic level there’s no question about it. And that’s why it’s not just about giving something to the companies. And we can talk about nationalization, if you’d like, at some point, which I think needs to be on the agenda. But it’s the encouraging workers to organize. I mean, when you look at the preamble to the National Labor Relations Act, it says right there, 1935, that the public policy of the United States is to support collective bargaining. Who knows that, right?

JAY: Okay. So, now, the argument you get from the Republican Party and sections of the Democratic Party is that the underlying problem is American workers have to be more competitive with the global marketplace, and when it comes to the auto bailout, it’s the workers’ feet are held to the fire: “You should get paid wages and working conditions similar to the non-unionized Toyota,” and so on. So what’s your counterargument to that? Because if wages go up, doesn’t that just make American products more uncompetitive? And then you’re back in a different problem.

FLETCHER: It’s interesting, because when I hear that, I think about something that Walter Luther, late president of the United Auto Workers, said when he toured a factory that had robots, and the owners of the particular company laughed, and they said to Luther, “So what are you going to do when robots replace workers?” And he said, “Who’s going to buy your cars when there are no workers?” I mean, the problem is that when people’s actual income is declining, you have the situation that we have right now: people do not want to buy anything, and you have this deflation that is underway. So the idea is that if there is no increase in people’s living standard, you have a further and further retreat to the bottom. And it’s not that those at the top are actually going to be able to stay there, because what they’re going to find is one company after another collapses. And that’s what we’re witnessing just the other day, with Circuit City going down and other such companies. We have to pay. The public policy of the United States does need to be about collective bargaining, and it does need to be about raising the living standards of the average person. That needs to be fundamental.

JAY: Okay. Now, this Employee Free Choice Act, which is right now the key piece of legislation that unions are asking for, one doesn’t even hear it talked about amongst Democratic leadership. I know President Obama said he would sign it, but it’s certainly not something he’s been discussing in his interviews recently on television. I may have missed it, but I didn’t hear him mention it.

FLETCHER: No, you’re right. And I’m nervous. I’m nervous about it because those who oppose the Employee Free Choice Act are sharpening their knives.

JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview let’s talk about the moment we’re in, because there is such a tremendous feeling in favor of Obama. No, here in Washington it’s like euphoria, it’s a celebration. Someone maybe said it was like Woodstock combined with Camelot and whatever other imagery one wants to bring up. But people actually aren’t that aware of the issues; they’re not all that aware of what real policy positions he’s taken. And then, even people who know his policy positions on things are all reading into him what they actually want, because nobody seems to believe what he’s saying; they all think he’s going to do what they really want.

FLETCHER: That’s exactly it.

JAY: So let’s talk about Obama and the American people in the next segment of the interview. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Bill Fletcher.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Bill Fletcher Jr. has been an activist since his teen years and previously served as a senior staff person in the national AFL-CIO; he is the former president of TransAfrica Forum, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, and the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ And 20 Other Myths about Unions and The Man Who Fell from the Sky. Fletcher Jr. is also a member of The Real News Network Board of Directors.