Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What Did Obama Really Say About the Chicago Sit-In? Depends on What the Meaning of "If" Is

Yesterday, President-Elect Barack Obama expressed his views on the workers who are protesting the failure of their company to provide them with notice of a shutdown as required by federal and state law. Before turning to his comments, let's take a look at how liberal commentators have construed them. Most of the reaction was extremely positive. Many progressives cited Obama's remarks as a wonderful and rare example of a president expressing support for class struggle.

Daily Kos
Obama Supports Republic Windows Workers Who Are Occupying Factory!
I didn't think he'd do it, but he did. I figured Obama would sit this one out. I mean, occupying a factory is illegal, at least formalistically. There could be a political downside. He didn't have to say anything. But I was wrong.

Huffington Post
Obama Encourages Worker Protest At Chicago Factory
The protest, along with vocal support from President-elect Barack Obama, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, civil rights activists and others, has . . . created . . . a chance for unions that have been losing members and strength for years to show they still matter.

In any event, I confess myself exhilarated by having a president-elect who may be unafraid to recognize the existence of class conflict in America and who seems willing to put the power of the United States behind the victims of what in the 1930s would have been called capitalist exploitation (and today can be described perhaps as "the operation of impersonal economic forces").

Guardian Unlimited
After eight years of labour being exiled to the wilderness in favour of corporate hand-outs, it is a rather stunning to watch what's now unfolding in response: President-elect Barack Obama has publicly come out in unequivocal support of the workers . . . .

Change I Can Believe In
How nice is it to have a pro-labor president. . . I like it.

Now, here are Obama's specific comments on the situation:

When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who
are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned
, I think
they are absolutely right . . . .

I think that these workers, if they have earned their benefits and their pay, then these companies need to follow through on those commitments.

Obama's statement is a straightforward, unassailable legal principle. No one can dispute that "if" workers are entitled to unpaid wages and benefits, then their employers should pay them. The Left, however, has read this as a progressive support of the sit-in, which he carefully avoids endorsing.

Obama only stated that he supports the workers demanding money to which they potentially are legally entitled. They could make this demand through litigation, an open-letter, or any number of means. Besides, the business is not operating at the site, and it has not complained about the presence of the workers. There is no issue of a work stoppage or slowdown. This is a unproblematic sit-in.

Obama also does not argue that Bank of America should pay the wages, which separates him from state and local politicians and the workers. Instead, he makes a generalized statement about ensuring that federal relief to lending institutions reach companies that need credit. My advice to the Left: Learn to read. . . between the lines.

Related Readings on Dissenting Justice:

* Laid-Off Republic Windows and Doors Workers: Pawns in Political Football

* Dodd's Discriminatory Bailout: "Regime Change" for Main Street, But Not for Wall Street?

* Factory Closes in Chicago; Workers Invoke Bailout During Protest

* Paulson, Geithner and Rubin: How the Big Three "Hooked Up" Citigroup

* Was GOP's Opposition to Bailout a Clever Ploy? Concessions for House Republicans Could Increase Budget Deficit, Make Plan More Expensive


* Bringing Back Welfare As We Knew It: My Indignant Take on the Wall Street Bail-Out


Anonymous said...

Thanks Prof. Honestly, I had only read the headlines and had not really paid attention to his actual comments. It's amazing how simply seeing a collection of headlines in a search list saying the same thing can shape our reality.

Aeneas said...

But speaking of his weasely statement. True to form, isn't he? That little 'if'. Somehow that is so--cold.

All this aside, this is why I read your blog--you point out the little 'if's that the great minds of the media either miss or chose not to see or mention.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Well thanks. Two things. First, as a lawyer, I have been trained to pick apart statements (and to appear tentative and firm at the same time).

Second, I think the coverage of this issue could warrant attention from social scientists who study web-based media (well, I guess that's all media today!). Obama made the comments in a press conference; a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times asked the question. Later, that reporter released a transcript of the press conference, and the title focused (naturally) on her/his question about the sit-in. The title was something like "Obama supports Protesting Workers."

After that, various versions of this headline appeared around the web, but the articles quoted the very same language I discuss on this blog. I really do not think people read the quote too carefully. They just quickly made sure it "sounded" like "support" and ran with it. The Huffington Post headline is my personal favorite:"Obama Encourages Worker Protest At Chicago Factory." Amazing.

Real Time Analytics