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Mike Elk: White House could use power of federal contracting to enforce labor laws, but has no plans to do so

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. According to Mike Elk, who’s a contributing editor to In These Times, President Obama can stop union busting with a stroke of his pen. And here he is to tell us how. Okay, thanks for joining us.


JAY: So how does he do this? How does President Obama accomplish this?

ELK: So there are currently laws on the book that say that if a company breaks the law, they can be debarred from bidding on federal contracts, meaning they can’t get federal contracts. It’s currently in this country illegal to fire a worker from their job for joining a union, but 20,000 workers a year are either fired or disciplined for trying to join a union, both of which are illegal. One-third of all, you know, union organizing drives, somebody gets fired from their job. Over 130,000 companies are federal contractors. All the big companies get some type of federal contract. If you say–if you enforce these laws, these laws about how to debar companies, these companies wouldn’t get contracts [incompr.]

JAY: Which would transform the way they do business if they had to worry about this. Now, in your article, I read that under President Clinton, near the end of his presidency, he actually signed an executive order that would have made some way to enforce this law. So what happened to that? And why isn’t President Obama doing the same thing?

ELK: Well, President Clinton signed a law like that in ’99, and then Bush came into office and he stopped the implementation of it.

JAY: Yeah, he signed an executive order [crosstalk]

ELK: He signed an executive order.

JAY: And Bush undoes his executive order.

ELK: He undid it. Basically what it would have done is created guidelines, created databases, created standards, so that these laws could be enforced. The law is on the book, but there’s no standards or guidelines about how to enforce it. So it’s not enforced, really, at all.

JAY: I mean, this goes back to another interview we did with you, where we talked about Boeing and National Labor Relations Board saying Boeing had violated the law by moving a plant to South Carolina. It may be hard for them to enforce that. But if you put these two things together and the federal government says to Boeing, well, you’re in violation [of the] National Labor Relations Board, so you’re not getting a federal contract–of course, we’d be living in a different world if this federal government would say such a thing to Boeing, but at least in terms of the law, that’s what could be operating.

ELK: It could be. And the president recently has shown that he’s willing to use the power of executive orders to force federal contractors to change their practice. They’ve drafted an executive order that would allow the president–that would make any company that gets a federal contract disclose its political donations.

JAY: So this is the story that broke in the last couple of weeks,–

ELK: Yeah, in the last couple of weeks.

JAY: –that there actually is such an order being drafted, maybe will be signed. And if I understand it correctly, companies that do business with the federal government will have to disclose how much and how they spent on federal politics.

ELK: Yeah. The federal government under current law has enormous powers over the abilities of government contractors, which–you know, 130,000 companies receive government contracts. So you can force companies to follow the law, follow safety standards, follow environmental standards, follow labor standards [crosstalk]

JAY: Without passing new legislation through Congress.

ELK: Yeah, without passing any new legislation. And the question is: why hasn’t the president done this? And it really boils down to a question of which side is this president on. Is he really on the side of working people? And I think the answer to that is no.

JAY: Thanks for joining us. You want to add anything else?

ELK: No.

JAY: Okay. That seems to be the question. Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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A native of the East End of Pittsburgh, Mike Elk is a Sidney award winner and a lifetime member of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.  As a pioneering leader in the digital media unionization movement, he has been profiled by NPR, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Newsweek, and Pacific Standard.

As an investigative reporter, Mike Elk’s work has been featured everywhere from the front page fo The New York Times to being debated by Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg on ABC’s The View. His work was credited by the Obama Administration for leading to an end of the use of the subminimum wage for the disabled workers and a massive pay raise for the domestic violence survivor advocates on 48 Army bases across the country. Speaking of his reporting covering the lockout of Honeywell uranium workers, Daily Show Co-Creator Lizz Winstead said “Mike Elk is the new John Wayne. I believe he is the real Matt Taibbi”.

At age 22, his first job was working as a field staffer for President Obama’s campaign in rural Western Pennsylvania. Afterward, he followed the President to Washington, D.C., where he heeded the President’s call to his young staffers to hold him accountable and became a labor reporter. He spent all eight years of the Obama Administration based out of Washington, D.C.  crisscrossing the country, visiting over 30 states, covering strikes, lockouts, and tragic workplace deaths.

He has worked as a workplace safety expert for MSNBC, as an investigative reporter for In These Times Magazine, and has also written for The New York Times, Washington Post, and Reuters. He is co-author of the book “We Are Wisconsin”.

At the age of 28, he rose to be the senior labor reporter on largest labor desk in the country when he co-founded POLITICO’s labor desk. After being illegally fired for union organizing at POLITICO, Mike used his NLRB settlement money to move to Chattanooga, Tennessee to found Payday Report

As the son of UE Director of Organization Gene Elk, he prefers to hide the fact that he attended a university as elite as Bucknell on a full scholarship. During college, he spent a year half in Brasil, where he covered the landless workers’ movement and the fallout of the drug war. He speaks Portuguese.

When Mike isn’t reporting on workers, he can be found listening to Sharon Jones, cooking salmon, and talking about the Civil War. He can be reached at or on twitter @MikeElk.