Unions “Seething” over Obama Selection of Furman as Economics Policy Director

Labor union officials and some liberal activists were seething Tuesday over Barack Obama’s choice of centrist economist Jason Furman as the top economic advisor for the campaign.

The critics say Furman, who was appointed to the post Monday, has overstated the potential benefits of globalization, Social Security private accounts and the low prices offered by Wal-Mart — considered a corporate pariah by the labor movement.

LA Times

We all support Obama against McCain.  And many of us support the labor movement also.  Our support of Obama is not the kind of support that believes he can do no wrong: that’s for those who support Bush.  

Labor leaders are rightly critical of Obama’s choice of Jason Furman as

the economic policy director.  While I continue to support Obama and work for his election, I must speeak out here.  This is the wrong direction.    

More after the fold.

Acting quickly after securing his party’s presidential nomination, Barack Obama picked a well-known representative of Bill Clinton’s economic policies as his economic policy director and signaled this week that the major players from the Clinton economics team were now in his camp – starting with Robert E. Rubin.

NY Times: Union Critical of Obama’s Top Economics Aide

The Steelworkers Union, which represents 1.22 million members, many of whom are in battleground states, was very upset.

We are very much taken aback that Furman has been put at the head of this team,” said Marco Trbovich, a senior aide to United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard, whose support is considered crucial to Obama’s success in heavily unionized areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota and other battleground states.

LA Times

John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO said:

For years we’ve expressed strong concerns about corporate influence on the Democratic Party,” John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.


In his statement criticizing Mr. Furman’s appointment, Mr. Sweeney said, “The fact that our country’s economic policies have become so dominated by the Wall Street agenda – and that it is causing working families real pain – is a top issue we will be raising with Senator Obama.”

NY Times: Union Critical of Obama’s Top Economics Aide

The AFL-CIO is right.  These issues need to be raised with Senator Obama.

And Wake Up Wal-Mart is truly unhappy.

It’s surprising because this guy seems to feel that Wal-Mart’s low-wage, low-benefit business model is good for America. That’s just flat-out wrong,” the executive director of Wal-Mart Watch, David Nassar, said.

This guy helped to lend credibility to the Wal-Mart business model. That was disappointing then and it’s disappointing now given this position,” said Mr. Nassar, whose group is backed by a board that includes the president of the Service Employees International Union, Andrew Stern.

Mr. Nassar quickly added that he was “not critiquing the Obama campaign.”

Wal-Mart Defender To Direct Obama’s Economic Policy

Jason Furman was the head of the centrist economic group started by Robert Rubin, the Hamilton Project.

“Furman seems like a liability, given his anti-worker writings and statements about Wal-Mart, fair trade and other middle-class issues,” said Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s global trade watch division.

LA Times

A conservative writer here praises the selection of Furman:

In a paper presented in Washington, he suggested that there were some economic benefits from the company’s low prices and other policies at a time when major labor unions had launched an anti-Wal-Mart campaign.

Furman is no protectionist. He understands the benefits that open trade brings America, such as low-priced goods at Wal-Mart and the intense competition that leads to innovation. The Hamilton Project, the program he ran at Brookings, is all about making sure the benefits of trade are more widely dispersed and the losers from trade taken care of-not scrapping NAFTA or the World Trade Organization.

Here is what Furman told me back in 2007:

Jason Furman, director of the Hamilton Project, a centrist economic group, thinks there will be plenty of China-bashing rhetoric and talk of trade barriers-like one proposal to slap a 27.5 percent tariff on Chinese goods because of the weak yuan–over the next few years, not to mention a pause in new trade agreements. But in the end, he speculates, Democrats will mostly push for greater social insurance, such as vastly increased unemployment benefits. “Social insurance,” he says, “can lead to a more dynamic society by letting people feel more comfortable taking risks.


Furman is also skeptical about a major pillar of economic thought in the Democratic Party, that the past three decades have been terrible for workers because of “stagnant wages.” He sees it as intellectually dishonest to ignore healthcare and retirement benefits when doing that calculation, as well as the falling price of everything from computers to airline tickets.

3) Furman also sees the value in a low tax rate with few deductions and is in favor of Charlie Rangel’s proposed corporate income tax cut.

James Pethokoukis, US News.com: Capital Commerce

Mr. Furman stepped out on the issue in 2005 by publishing a 16-page paper titled, “Wal-Mart: A Progressive Success Story.” He argued that the huge cost savings the company has delivered to its customers, who tend to have low incomes, far outweighed any impact the chain may have had on wages.

Change to Win, a union federation that endorsed Barack Obama, supports the Wake Up Walmart Campaign by its constituent union, United Food and Commercial Workers, which also endoresed Obama in the primary:

You Can Change Wal-Mart

As America’s largest employer and #1 company among the Fortune 500, Wal-Mart has a responsibility to do right by consumers. Yet, for years, Wal-Mart has paid poverty wages, provided unaffordable health care, and negatively impacted our communities.

Wake Up Wal Mart

Well, there are two visions for America: Wal-Mart’s America, where profits come before people, and our vision, where people come first.

In Wal-Mart’s America, workers are paid poverty level wages even when they work full-time.

In our America, workers are paid a living wage with proper health and retirement benefits.

In Wal-Mart’s America, wealthy companies shift their health care costs onto taxpayers like you and your families.

In our America, corporations live up to their responsibility and provide their employees with adequate and affordable health care coverage.

In Wal-Mart’s America, suppliers are forced to make their goods cheaper even if it means shipping U.S. jobs overseas.

In our America, we value U.S. jobs and companies that buy and sell “Made in America.”

In Wal-Mart’s America, women are paid less than men.

In our America, women and men are treated equally – fair pay for everyone.

Wal-Mart’s Vision for America vs. Our Vision for America

Please join Wake Up Walmart and show Furman which side you are on.

Jim Tasini, a person I’ve met and respect greatly, suggested that Obama will not turn his back on workers:

“It’s legitimate to give you pause,” Mr. Tasini, who ran an unsuccessful primary challenge to Senator Clinton in 2006, said. “There have been concerns raised about where Obama’s economic policies will trend,” the writer said.

Mr. Tasini noted that, while Mr. Obama spurned labor groups by voting for a free-trade agreement with Peru, his past suggests he would be an ally of labor. “It’s hard to believe that during his community organizing work in the poorest neighborhoods of his own city he didn’t have something sink into him about income inequality. There’s no way to read anything he has put out there as anything but rejection for the Wal-Mart model,” Mr. Tasini said.

Wal-Mart Defender To Direct Obama’s Economic Policy

In the past, Obama has been a supporter fo Wake Up Wal-Mart:

The national conference call, entitled a “Call for Change”, will highlight two of the Democratic Party’s brightest stars, Senator John Edwards and Senator Barack Obama, who will be speaking out and calling on Wal-Mart to put families first and become an employer that reflects the best of American values.

During the conference call, Senator Obama and Senator Edwards will also encourage the 285,000 supporters of WakeUpWalMart.com, and all Americans, to continue the fight to change Wal-Mart and change America for the better.

Sen. John Edwards & Sen. Barack Obama Headline National Conference Call for WakeupWalMart.com Supporters

Let’s hope Tasini is right.  But this choice sends a bad message to working people.  It’s not just Wal-Mart: it’s economic policy.  This selection suggests that Obama’s answer to globalization and class stratification is increased welfare, as people lose jobs.  

In other words, Furman would rather see expanded unemployment insurance, wage insurance, and more education for workers rather than trade barriers to protect their jobs. Unions tend to dismiss those sorts of policies, “burial insurance.”

If you care about working people, tell Barack Obama at

barackobama.com that Furman’s direction is not the hope or change we need.  

I understand some will be upset with any criticism of Barack Obama, but this is the wrong direction and I would not be honest with myself if I were silent.  Obama’s speech to the SEIU was so good:

“Change is building an economy that rewards not just wealth but work and the workers who work hard every day.

Change is having a president who’s worked with you on that picket line, who doesn’t choke on the word “union.”  Who lets unions do what they do best: organizing our workers.

And who will finally make the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land.

Change is bringing justice to the janitors, farm workers,restaurant workers and all the undocumented workers of our service industries.”

Obama: “building an economy that rewards not just wealth but work.” (w/ Video of SEIU Speech)

That’s change and hope.  Furman is not.


Skip to comment form

    • TomP on June 12, 2008 at 15:59

    hope and change for working folks.  

  1. This is simply off the radar screen in America.


  2. We all support Obama against McCain.

    Unless that’s a ‘royal’ we, perhaps it should be changed to “most of us” or “some of us” instead of “We all.”

    Personally, I’ll vote for Ralph.

  3. because they could see in more dimensions than republicans. they could see weakness in their candidates

    how do we influence this man if we don’t speak up about his choices?

    keep up these essays, TomP. and thanks!!!

    we should know exactly for whom we are voting… those of us voting for Mr. Obama that is!

  4. Really do they still exist in the US?

    Is their power 1/1000th what is was ten years ago?

    Hey, didn’t they just close that factory?

    Rust belt?  What do you call the high tech sector’s rust belt?

    What did I say?  Obama, love child of the globalists.  

    Obama fails miserably at every concept that would help the common working man.

  5. This is an important one.  I’m glad the unions are making noise about it, and plan to talk to Obama.

    • geomoo on June 13, 2008 at 17:32

    The entire trend toward concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, with all the concomitant fascist suppression, is the result of economic policy.  This is a very, very upsetting development.

    I was ruthless in my criticism of Nader voters in the past.  I’m less and less certain.  Is half a loaf better than none?  A tenth of a loaf?  A hundredth?  All I know is, too damn many people are going hungry.

  6. …Furman is a great academic economist.  And, considering that Obama’s chief economic adviser is Austan Goolsbee, this is exactly the kind of pick that people should have seen coming.

    Obama is pro-international trade.  The unions aren’t.  On this subject, I think the unions are wrong, but whatever.  The point is that this is the sort of obvious political choice which is both in tune with Obama’s beliefs and which will help in the general election.

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