Obama Calls for Workplace Reforms in Final State of the Union

By Allen Smith Jan 13, 2016
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Photo Credit: Associated Press
Workplace issues figured prominently in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Jan. 12.

His speech primarily targeted big-picture items, and, in his final address before the legislators, he said he would “go easy on the traditional list” of what he wanted from Congress. But he said he still had “plenty” of items on his wish list, including:

  • Fixing a broken immigration system.
  • Equal pay for equal work.
  • Paid leave.
  • Raising the minimum wage.

“All these things still matter to hardworking families,” he said.

The president made clear that he didn’t want to speak just about hoped-for change in the coming year, but about what happens in the “next five years, next 10 years and beyond.”

He spoke of Americans living in a time of “extraordinary change” in the way we live and work. And he expected the changes to “only accelerate,” which will strain American families.

Speaking sometimes directly to the American public rather than to members of Congress, the Supreme Court justices and members of the Cabinet in front of him, Obama noted that in the past Americans have made change “work for us ... because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril.” And America emerged stronger than before. “What was true then can be true now,” he said.

America’s optimism, work ethic and diversity give the country everything it needs to create prosperity for all, he said, and, in fact, these attributes helped the country recover from the Great Recession and inspired reforms in the health care system. It resulted in more benefits for troops coming home and Americans securing the freedom in every state to marry the person they love, he added.

“But such progress is not inevitable. It is the result of choices we make together,” he said, outlining four big questions the country is facing:

  • How to give everyone an opportunity and fair share in the new economy.
  • How to make technology work for us.
  • How to keep America safe in the world without policing everywhere.
  • How to make politics reflect what is the best in us.

Fair Share in New Economy

“Anyone claiming the American economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” Obama said. He asserted that the U.S. economy is the “strongest, most durable economy in the world.” And he emphasized that the country is in the midst of its longest streak of job creation—70 months—in history. More than 14 million new jobs have been created and the unemployment rate has been cut in half. Manufacturing has created nearly 900,000 jobs in the past six years.

Yet it is true, he acknowledged, that the economy is changing in profound ways. “Today, technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line,” he said, “but any job where work can be automated.” In addition, “Companies in a global economy can locate anywhere, and face tougher competition. As a result, workers have less leverage for a raise.”

He blamed these trends for squeezing workers, even when the economy is growing. “It’s made it harder for a hardworking family to pull itself out of poverty, harder for young people to start on their careers and tougher for workers to retire when they want to,” he remarked.

He said he wants reforms that would help workers get the education and training they need to land good-paying jobs. To that end, he called for “offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one.”

The president also called for making college “affordable for every American. Because no hardworking student should be stuck in the red.”

Educational reforms beyond the bipartisan reform of the No Child Left Behind Act are needed, Obama added. He called for providing two years of community college at no cost and said, “I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year.”

Educational reforms alone won’t be enough though. “After all, it’s not that much of a stretch to say that some of the only people in America who are going to work the same job, in the same place, with a health and retirement package, for 30 years, are sitting in this chamber. For everyone else, especially folks in their 40s and 50s, saving for retirement or bouncing back from job loss has gotten a lot tougher. Americans understand that at some point in their careers, they may have to retool and retrain.”

When workers are between jobs, the Affordable Care Act can fill in gaps in employer-provided health care. “Nearly 18 million have gained coverage so far,” he said. “Health care inflation has slowed. And our businesses have created jobs every single month since it became law.”

Noting that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has a special interest in fighting poverty, Obama said, “I’d welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support, like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers without kids.”

Further reaching out to Republicans, Obama said, “There are outdated regulations that need to be changed, and there’s red tape that needs to be cut.” But, he added, “After years of record corporate profits, working families won’t get more opportunity or bigger paychecks by letting big banks or big oil or hedge funds make their own rules at the expense of everyone else, or by allowing attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered.”

Republicans’ Reply

In her brief reply to President Obama’s State of the Union address, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley spoke on behalf of Republicans to say that Obama “spoke eloquently about grand things.” But she asserted that his record “falls short of his eloquent words.”

Many Americans are struggling to make ends meet, she said. And their old health care providers are no longer available.

She called for a stop to illegal immigration and said the country should not let in refugees who cannot be thoroughly vetted.

Haley asserted that under a Republican administration, the country would see:

  • Lower taxes.
  • Brakes on runaway spending.
  • A soaring economy and jobs across the country.
  • An end to a “disastrous” health care system.
  • Increased military spending.
  • A recognition of separation of powers.

Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.

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