In a presidential primary season that has so far taken on a more populist tone than many expected, Democrats took advantage of the Labor Day holiday to try to highlight the party’s historic connections to the Labor movement. Their goal was to differentiate themselves from a Republican Party that has typically been less supportive of organized labor.
However, in a reminder that while presidential hopefuls may be campaigning furiously, there is still a sitting president in Washington with another 17 months to serve, it was an announcement by President Obama Monday that garnered most of the media’s attention.
At a breakfast meeting of the Greater Boston Labor Council, the president announced he had signed a new executive order requiring federal contractors to offer paid sick leave to their workers, a move the White House said could eventually affect 300,000 workers, though it won’t take effect until 2017, when Obama is out of office.
In his remarks, the President conceded that the workers affected by his policy make up only a small fraction of U.S. workers without paid time off, and blamed Congress for failing to act to address the problem.
“Right now about 40 percent of private sector workers – 44 million people in America – don’t have access to paid sick leave,” the President said. “Now unfortunately, only Congress has the power to give this security to all Americans. But where I can act, I will, and by the way I just did.”
Obama’s announcement largely overshadowed Labor Day speeches by the two leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Both spoke to Union groups in town hall settings that were streamed live to union groups. The events were technically closed to the press but media outlets, including CNN and The New York Times, got access to the remarks.
Clinton, speaking at an event in Illinois, told union members that as president she would “defend and protect” the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. She also took a swing at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a candidate for the Republican nomination who made his name in the party by winning a high-profile showdown with public employee unions in his home state.
However, Clinton got the most attention for a promise to focus on stronger enforcement of labor laws and a vow to “make sure that some employers go to jail for wage theft and all the other abuses they engage in.”
Sanders, who identifies himself as a socialist, touted what he described as a 25-year pro-labor record in Congress and spoke out in favor of raising the minimum wage and against the Trans Pacific Partnership, a massive trade agreement that the Obama administration is currently negotiating with U.S. trading partners around the Pacific Rim.
While Clinton is usually more associated with the Wall Street arm of the Democratic Party, Sanders’ background and socialist beliefs make him especially comfortable among union members.
“Working people and their unions fought for a more responsive democracy and built the middle class,” he said. “Today we can and we must follow their example. It’s time to rebuild the crumbling middle class of our country and make certain that every working person in the United States of America has a chance at a decent life.”
He added, “I’m not going to leave here to go out to meet with the bankers or corporate America. You are my family. This is what I do.”