WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama called for higher blue-collar wages and benefits and promoted collective bargaining on Wednesday, courting workers’ unions in a day-long event as his advancing Pacific Rim trade deal has left many labor groups disenchanted with the White House.
In a speech to workers, union leaders, lawmakers and employers, Obama supported the defense of workers’ rights and urged workers to band together in an increasingly technology-driven economy.
“I believe when people attack unions, they’re attacking the middle class,” Obama told attendees of the first-ever White House Summit on Worker Voice.
“We’ve got to make sure ... working Americans don’t get lost in the shuffle,” he said. “They can come together and they can win.”
Obama and union leaders have recently been at odds, with the president advocating for a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership that labor groups fear could destroy U.S. jobs. The pact was announced early Monday and is awaiting approval from Congress.
At the summit, Obama pointed out that the audience included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose caucus has been skeptical of Obama’s trade discussions, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who has been highly critical of the deal.
He said the idea for the event was borne out of a conversation with Trumka and Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry, another staunch TPP opponent, who Obama called on to speak at a question-and-answer session later in the day.
Obama cited companies like Lyft and Uber [UBER.UL], ride-sharing services, and Handy and TaskRabbit, which help users outsource housekeeping and chores, as innovators that help increase workers’ flexibility and autonomy.
But he cautioned that such companies, which are not unionized, could also be detrimental to workers.
“If the combination of globalization and automation undermines the capacity of the ordinary worker and the ordinary family to be able to support themselves ... then we’re going to have problems,” he said.
Terrence Wise, a second-generation fast-food worker at both Burger King Corp [BKCBK.UL] and McDonald’s Corp and a union member, introduced the president.
“I have seen firsthand how we are heard - and how we make change - when workers like us stick together,” he said. “We are united as working people, as moms and dads, as proud Americans, to make sure all work pays what we need to support our families.”
Reporting by Megan Cassella; Editing by Richard Chang