by Noam Scheiber
WASHINGTON — With little fanfare, the Obama administration has been pursuing an aggressive campaign to restore protections for workers that have been eroded by business activism, conservative governance and the evolution of the economy in recent decades.
In the last two months alone, the administration has introduced a series of regulatory changes. Among them: a rule that would make millions more Americans eligible for extra overtime pay, and a guidance suggesting that many employers are misclassifying workers as contractors and therefore depriving them of basic workplace protections. That is an issue central to the growth of so-called gig economy companies like Uber.
A little more than a week ago, a federal appeals panel affirmed an earlier regulation granting nearly 2 million previously exempted home care workers minimum wage and overtime protections. And on Thursday, President Obama’s appointees to theNational Labor Relations Board issued an important ruling that makes it easier for employees of contractors and franchises to bargain collectively with the corporations that have sway over their operations.
“These moves constitute the most impressive and, in my view, laudable attempt to update labor and employment law in many decades,” said Benjamin I. Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School and a former assistant general counsel for the Service Employees International Union. The goal, he said, is to “keep pace with changes in the structure of the labor market and the way work is organized. That’s a theme that runs through all of this.”
In one sense, Mr. Obama foreshadowed these efforts as a candidate in 2008, when he famously suggested that, if elected, he would aim to be a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan. “Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” he told a newspaper editorial board in Nevada. “He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.”
Once in office, Mr. Obama delivered on that implied promise in a few critical ways, particularly his signature health care legislation. But throughout much of his first term, he disappointed supporters with his inability to pursue a larger progressive agenda and with his insufficient focus on the balance of power between workers and their employers.
Labor unions complained that he failed to throw his energy behind a measure that would have made it easier for workers to organize by requiring employers to recognize a union once a majority of workers had signed cards, rather than allowing employers to insist on a secret ballot election.
Liberals criticized the pace at which Mr. Obama put judges on the federal bench, including the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which has enormous influence over federal regulations. And they complained that he failed to move quickly in placing appointees at agencies like the National Labor Relations Board, which went without two of its three Democratic members until well into the second year of his presidency.
“They were very weak on getting people into their positions in the first term,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning research and advocacy group. “They lost many years of potential fruitful activity.” (The White House says that the president was prompt in naming appointees, whose nominations then became bogged down in the Senate.)
After spending several months in 2011 on a failed effort to negotiate a deficit-cutting “grand bargain” with the new House Republican majority, however, Mr. Obama did an apparent about-face, deciding that he would use every tool available to enact what he considered to be a bold pro-worker agenda on his own.
“Perhaps the most substantively important speech of the Obama presidency was the Osawatomie speech in 2011,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former communications director and senior adviser to the president, referring to a speech that December. “It was a set of marching orders to the entire government that increasing income inequality and declining economic mobility are the key challenge of our time. Given the congressional gridlock, the president pushed us very hard to pull every lever possible.”
Read the full article from The New York Times.