After eight years in a Washington-style exile, leaders of labor unions were brought into the White House on Friday and treated to a series of executive orders signed by President Obama that will curb union-busting and preserve workers' jobs on federal contracts.
"Welcome back to the White House," Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told the leaders in the White House East Room, moments after the president tapped him to lead a task force to figure out how to raise U.S. living standards, especially for middle-income people.
Mr. Obama's orders give workers the chance to retain jobs on federal contracts, even if the contractors change, and to stop federal contractors from being reimbursed for trying to prevent their workers from unionizing. One of his orders will undo a Bush administration directive that required employers to post guidance about how employees could opt out of union dues used for politicking or lobbying.
Mr. Obama said his goal was to reverse Bush administration labor policies and "level the playing field for workers and the unions that represent their interests."
He added: "I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem -- to me, it's part of the solution."
Groups that fight unions' efforts to expand said the orders amounted to a power grab for unions.
"President Obama has sent an ominous message to the 93 percent of private sector workers in America who, for whatever reasons, have chosen not to unionize: You're not welcome here," said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the orders create an unworkable situation for the government trying to track how contractors used federal funds.
The AFL-CIO this week questioned whether companies that got financial bailout money used it to lobby against pro-union legislation such as the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workers to unionize without having to go through a secret ballot process.
Unions called the orders merely a first step on the road to fairer treatment of workers.
"Taken together, these orders show that the administration recognizes the federal government's responsibility, as the nation's largest purchaser of goods and services, to set model employment standards for private sector workers, as well as for the direct federal work force," said Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.
Labor leaders, who claim credit for helping deliver victory to Mr. Obama in the November elections, have high expectations for what he and the Democrat-led Congress can do. A top priority for them is the Employee Free Choice Act.
But Mr. Obama seems to have given that legislation a relatively low priority. Asked in the days before his inauguration about timing for the bill, he told The Washington Post that his first goal was to get the economy moving, adding that he was open to alternatives to the bill.
On Friday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that interview still reflects Mr. Obama's thinking.
Mr. Biden's middle-class task force is the first specific assignment he has received from Mr. Obama. Recent vice presidents had their own issues to look after with the president's blessing. For Dick Cheney, it was to run an energy task force; Al Gore focused on reinventing government.
Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, a moderate Democrat-leaning group that praised the task force, said it offers the chance for the Obama administration to get beyond the focus on the very rich and the very poor that dominated recent administrations.
"What Biden was talking about was families, middle-class families, folks in that doughnut hole that don't really get much right now from the federal government - people from $40,000 to $120,000 a year. How do you help them get their kids through college, how do you help them raise a family and have a career?" Mr. Kessler said.
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