Leo Gerard: Obama isn’t the problem, it’s corporate Democrats and the Republicans


Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re back at the America’s Future Now! conference in Washington, and joining us is Leo Gerard, the president of United Steelworkers. Thanks for joining us.

LEO GERARD, PRESIDENT, UNITED STEELWORKERS: My pleasure to be with you.

JAY: So we’ve talked several times, and last time or so when we talked, the labor movement in the United States had a very specific agenda they wanted out of this administration. You guys spent a ton of money electing Obama. Your people spent hours and hours on the streets, knocking on doors. And the two big issues for you were a health-care plan with a public option, and many of you, including you, wanted a single-payer option, never mind public option.

GERARD: Right.

JAY: And you got neither. And you wanted the Employee Free Choice Act, which is—for people that don’t know, is an act that will make it easier to organize unions. And if you don’t know the details, take a look on our site, ’cause we’ve done about 30 stories about it. Now, you didn’t get near what you wanted on health care. I haven’t heard the words Employee Free Choice Act come out of anyone from the Obama administration’s mouth in the last months. So where is your agenda at, to start with?

GERARD: Well, I think the agenda’s still alive and well. I don’t know how well it is.

JAY: I mean, well in your minds, but where is it in terms of—?

GERARD: Well, I think, well, because we’re not going to give it up. And let me say this, that the issue is not President Obama, the issue is not the overwhelming, substantial majority of Democrats in the House and Senate; the issue is a small number of Democrats who are corporate Democrats, and the Republican party. The public agenda on health care, the public option on health care should have been there, but a couple of corporate Democrats—one of which is Blanche Lincoln—and obviously the loss of Senator Kennedy took away that opportunity. But we’re not giving up. [inaudible] continue to fight it.

JAY: But President Obama didn’t come out swinging for the public option. You know, he was kind of there, and then when he was pushed back, he kind of gave it up.

GERARD: You know, one of the things about this president is that he’s very competent and doesn’t believe he has to yell and scream. He knows what the measure is. And he did try real hard to get the public option. And he did real work on the right of workers to organize, the employee free choice. But I can say this: clearly the loss of Senator Kennedy and that 60th vote meant a lot, and that gave some people, like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln, a place to go hide. And so we’re not ashamed of the fact that we’re trying to have Blanche Lincoln defeated today. And she deserved to be defeated because she ran on a progressive platform, and then when she got there she turned her back on that platform. So let me just say, Paul, that we may have lost the first leg, but we haven’t lost this battle, and we’re not going to give it up until we get employee free choice, the right of workers to organize. The labor law in the United States is amongst the worst in the industrialized world. And the first step—and I agree that this first step, this major change in health care, is the largest change in health care in more than 40 years. But as far as I’m concerned, as far as the majority of the labor movement’s concerned, that doesn’t end debate. We’re going to continue to struggle for the kind of public option, the kind of single-payer health care that will eventually be in place.

JAY: I understand why you’re taking on Blanche Lincoln and some of the Democrats that you’re calling “corporate Democrats”, but you don’t critique the president at all on this. And, you know, from my perspective, having watched this pretty closely, President Obama did not come out swinging on the public option. He kind of handed leadership to Senate committees, who were more or less corporate Democrats running the Senate committees. He held back so long. And then, when he finally did come out swinging, it wasn’t very far into the process where he said, well, public option’s not really the issue; regulation’s more the issue.

GERARD: Well, look it, I think that that’s a misinterpretation of what was going on. You’ve got to look at the bill that passed the House. The bill that passed the House is the bill that we all would have been much better off with. President Obama supported that bill; President Obama helped shape that bill. It had a good public option. It had a lot of things in it. Then you got to go and work with the Senate, and he worked real hard trying to get those that were trying to resist that approach—.

JAY: But why did he hand the stage to Bacchus? I mean, why would you hand over such an important agenda to a conservative Democrat?

GERARD: I could say that the agenda that was brought in place the last time we took health care on was one that was run by the White House, and it failed. So, you know, you needed to have the votes to get it. And if there’s a third person I should be mad at besides Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln, it is the senator from Montana. I have a hard time saying his name sometimes. We took and elected a majority in the Senate, and then this guy who’s chairman of the Senate Finance Committee takes his majority and gives it up, and he sets an equal committee of three conservative Democrats with three right-wing Republicans and says we’re going to talk about health care. At that point in time, I think he put the whole public option at risk. I think what he did by refusing to have a debate on single-payer—he wouldn’t even let single-payer enter into the debate. I know why he didn’t do that, ’cause if single-payer would have got into the debate, we’d have found out that we could save $400 billion a year with single-payer—he lost his argument. So there’s a number of corporate Democrats that we ought to be angry at. But I’m not going to say that this was the president’s fault. He supported the bill that came out of the House that was a good bill. It wasn’t single-payer, but it was a hell of a lot better than we ended up.

JAY: So President Obama, it’s highly unlikely he would have been elected if the labor movement, particularly in Pennsylvania where you guys are—he wouldn’t have gotten elected without you. You put a ton of money in the Democratic Party. You put enormous amounts of foot power, as I said. What are you guys going to do to actually have more influence? And forget more influence; when are you guys going to try to take control of the Democratic Party? And what does it take to do that?

GERARD: Look it, I think what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to elect a lot more progressive Democrats. We would be advantaged if we had Bill Halter elected in Arkansas tonight.

JAY: Yeah, and we’re doing the interview the day of the election, so by the time you see this, you are going to know the results, but right now we don’t.

GERARD: We don’t. If we elect Bill Halter and we elect Bill Halter to the Senate, we’ll be a lot better off. One of the things that we need to do, as president Rich Trumka said at the AFL-CIO, we’re no longer going to be the ATM machine for the Democratic Party. If we’ve got folks that are prepared to support our issues, support our agenda, that’s who we’re going to support. You know, Blanche Lincoln would have never got elected to the Senate without the help of the labor movement, but as soon as she got there, she got amnesia.

JAY: Now, some of the workers in Massachusetts, when it came to the elections after Senator Kennedy died, they made an interesting decision all on their own. A lot of those workers who had been voting Democrats decided either we’re going to stay home and not vote at all, or a lot of them actually—apparently, a majority of unionized workers actually voted Republican, more or less as a protest, one thinks.

GERARD: I think there was and there still is a lot of anger, and some of it is directed in the right direction, some of it’s misdirected. There’s a lot of anger because you see the people that were at the heart of causing the greatest economic catastrophe we’ve seen since the Great Depression, they’re still doing okay.

JAY: Better than okay.

GERARD: They’ve got their money back, they made big profits, they pay themselves big bonuses, while they destroyed the jobs of ordinary Americans. So they’re angry.

JAY: So, there’s a lot of that anger is at President Obama for being part of that process. It started with Bush, but President Obama—.

GERARD: Yeah, President Obama inherited the worst economic circumstances since the Great Depression. He inherited a war that had no mission to it. He inherited an economy that was in the worst collapse. He inherited a health-care system that couldn’t be sustained. He inherited a collapsing industrial base. And he’s managed all of those things. I am not going to be the one that says President Obama dropped the ball. President Obama is juggling many, many balls at the same time. Where we failed in Massachusetts—and I believe we failed in directing the anger to where it should have been directed, and the anger should have been directed at the Republicans who were the ones that were holding up the process. And we let the process take its course—”we” means progressives, the labor movement, everyone, Democrats, that care about this. We failed in that regard. I would just say point blank, we never had a good candidate, a candidate that didn’t want to go handbill, the candidate that didn’t want to go handbill during the Patriots game ’cause it was too cold. It can’t be too cold if you’re going to campaign to win.

JAY: But a lot of that anger is about Wall Street, I mean, and the enormous amounts of public money that went to Wall Street. And many of the economists we talk to say that it simply wasn’t necessary. There really were other choices there. You know, AIG didn’t have to be bailed out the way it was, and the money that went to Goldman and the role the Fed is playing, the Obama administration’s at the center of all this. And you can’t like the financial team he appointed.

GERARD: I don’t. Let me tell you this, though: it’s wrong for you to say that he was responsible for that bailout. Let’s not forget that bailout happened with [Henry] Paulson, a former Goldman Sachs guy, and Goldman was—.

JAY: This is AIG you’re talking.

GERARD: Goldman was owed a lot of money from AIG. Paulson was the secretary of the Treasury, okay, at the time. The bailout happened during the Bush regime. President Obama inherited it, and as he said, and I agree with, he found this huge deficit sitting on his desk wrapped in a bow when he got there. That huge deficit was created by Bush, his unfunded war, it was created by a collapsing economy, it was created by a bailout that may or may not have been needed. But the Bush administration and folks left that on his desk as he arrived. Now, there are a lot of other economists that say, had we not done something, we could have slipped into the Great Depression.

JAY: But the something is very debatable. Something didn’t have to enrich all the same people that had already cashed out of Wall Street.

GERARD: We could have debated what that something is. And people are necessarily and rightfully angry at what happened on Wall Street. But it’s important, I say again, that we direct that anger to where it should have been. That was brought to us by the Republican Party; that was brought to us by a failed ideology that says get out of the way, let the markets do what they want to do. It’s the same ideology that Cheney and Bush deregulated deep offshore drilling. They deregulated deep offshore drilling, and now we’ve got the worst economic [sic] catastrophe in the history of the country. They deregulated the financial markets; we had the second greatest economic collapse in the history of the country. They deregulated international trade; we went from being the largest creditor nation to the largest debtor nation. So it’s not about government being too big; it’s about government being too small. That’s why we got in this economic crisis. As the president tries to fix that, we’ve got the Republicans standing in the way of any reform, standing in the way of doing anything. So they want this to get as bad as it can be so they can blame the president. Well, he’s not the problem; they are.

JAY: Okay, but your president’s supporting a lot of the people you want to defeat in the primaries.

GERARD: Yeah, I understand that. I don’t forget that they are a club. It’s up to us to break the club up.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

GERARD: My pleasure.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And we’ll fight again soon, I hope.

End of Transcript

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Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard is a steelworker and president of the United Steelworkers (USW). He was involved in the formation of the Industrial Union Council of the AFL-CIO, and in February 2003, was appointed to serve on the AFL-CIO's Executive Committee, as well as serving on its Executive Council. He was named Chair of the AFL-CIO's Public Policy Committee in March 2005.