Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

What to Do About Jack Lew

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Rob Nabors, Barack Obama, and Jack Lew

By Official White House Photo by Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is a really interesting discussion going on that started on Twitter, and has since moved to the blogs, sparked by Josh Eidelson’s excellent piece on accusations of union busting against current White House chief of staff and Treasury Secretary nominee Jack Lew.

Lew, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton, joined NYU as chief operating officer and executive vice president in 2004. At the time, NYU was the only private university in the United States whose graduate students had a union contract. By the time Lew left two years later, NYU graduate students had lost their collective bargaining rights. In between, picketers hoisted “Wanted” posters with his face on them.

Reached over email, Andrew Ross, NYU professor of social and cultural analysis, charged that “the administration followed every page of the union-busting playbook, as instructed by the anti-union lawyers retained for that purpose.” Ross, a co-editor of the anthology “The University Against Itself: The NYU Strike and the Future of the Academic Workplace,” wrote that despite broad faculty and community support for the union, “students on the picket line were threatened with expulsion. There was no indication that Lew, as a senior member of the team who executed this policy, disagreed with any of these practices. To all appearances, he was a willing, and loyal, executor of decisions that trampled all over the students’ democratic right to organize.”


By the time Jack Lew left his post as NYU COO to become COO of Citigroup Wealth Management, the six-month strike was over, and the union had lost.

When we talked last year – soon after Obama had promoted Lew from his OMB director to his chief of staff — Local 2110 president Maida Rosenstein told me that Lew had acted as “the point person” in “representing management’s position” against GSOC.

Josh’s piece generated some attention, leading Elias Isquith to question whether the Treasury Secretary has anything to do with labor unions. Shawn Gude and Erik Loomis both have responses that I largely agree with. But I wanted to add a couple of thoughts that relate to some of the themes I’ve been talking about here.

First, cabinet secretaries are policy-makers. I don’t mean in the sense that they work with the president to negotiate with Congress or develop legislative proposals and the like, although that’s also true. Whether we’re talking about administrative rule making, regulatory enforcement or law enforcement, administration is policy making.  The field of public administration at its inception accepted a politics-administration dichotomy, with policy making firmly on the politics side, but rejected it ages ago.  The Treasury Department plays a major role in regulating the economy, and that impacts labor and labor unions, just as these things are a major part of what drives the economy.  Things like an overvalued dollar have a major impact on wages and labor competition. Treasury also plays a major role in influencing trade policy, including the World Bank, IMF, etc.  We don’t tend to think of these sorts of things when we talk about policy making, but they are.  It isn’t that legislation isn’t important, but that there is all sorts of legislation already granting authority to various departments and agencies, oftentimes (usually?) with broad latitude about how to go about it.  It’s easy to let the rhetoric around democracy and representation to obscure the realities of how politics works, and I think this is what’s going on here. Indeed, I’ve argued that placing formal decision by representatives at the core of politics, leaving activities that fall outside of that obscured, is standard in political discourse and political science.

The other issue relates to how to deal with the question of whether Lew was in fact involved in the union busting.  I’m largely convinced by Josh’s piece, but let’s put that aside for a second, as well as the wish that expressed by Isquith and Loomis that Lew would be forced to answer questions about this in his confirmation hearings. I’d treat this in much the same way I’ve suggested we should respond to trial balloons – that it doesn’t matter if it’s true, and it doesn’t matter if it can be proven, but that it’s a moment where the relative power of the players are being tested. What does it say about labor and progressives if Lew can be confirmed despite the possibility that he was involved in union busting. Imagine the NRA refusing to react when faced with someone from Bloomberg’s staff because it was unclear if they worked on the gun issue.  Imagine Wall Street accepting someone who worked in an organization that supported a Toobin tax because that person’s stance on it was unverified.  These things would never happen.  As I said when discussing trial balloons:

This makes sense, given a central problem for all actors in the political system–nobody knows exactly what everyone else in thinking, or how strongly they feel. Watching how other people react when ideas are floated provides that information.  It lets you know if your position is popular (within elite circles in Washington, which is what matters for these things) or if a particular stand would mean that you were standing alone. It’s how the boundaries of what’s reasonable and what’s off the wall are drawn. It’s how you can tell if you will be called to account for your actions and whether you’ll be able to defend them if you are.  Since organizing opposition takes time, you can be sure it either won’t happen, or at least won’t happen effectively, if people don’t begin mobilizing long before a final decision, whether that means an appointment, or a legislative vote.


Powerful people in Washington understand all this.  They pounce on people for merely suggesting anything that threatens their interests. That’s how they keep such ideas off the agenda, so that what is actually voted on is non-threatening, making wins and losses on the merits essentially beside the point. When Social Security and Medicare were untouchable, it was because the slightest whiff of a challenge to it would bring about a massive mobilization.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that Lew would be worse than Geithner, who I’d categorize as disastrous. I don’t think progressives can stop this nomination, and I don’t think a really good candidate is even possible in the present climate.  But the real question is : how do you change that climate? I think mobilizing against someone like Lew is a good start – or at least, something like that.  Making involvement in union busting toxic in the Democratic Party seems like a worthy goal.

But what if I agreed that Lew truly was such a great negotiator?  First, that seems to be an argument in favor of leaving him as Chief of Staff rather than moving him to Treasury. It’s not as though COS wouldn’t be involved.  But even so, I’m also not inclined to think his negotiation skills will help things I care about – people said the same thing about Rahm Emanuel, after all.

Regardless, the intersection between the highest levels of finance and politics is the very definition of corruption as the Framers understood it, and here I must agree with them.  That’s not going to change no matter how we react to any one appointment, and it doesn’t tell us how to go about challenging it. But it is an appalling state of affairs.  No great insight there, but I feel it must be said.


Written by David Kaib

January 15, 2013 at 1:11 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] it taking me so long (relative to blog/Twitter time, that is) to get this response online is that David Kaib, in a response to us all, has done a good pretty of making the same point, more […]

  2. Um, yeah:

    I’d treat this in much the same way I’ve suggested we should respond to trial balloons – that it doesn’t matter if it’s true, and it doesn’t matter if it can be proven, but that it’s a moment where the relative power of the players are being tested. What does it say about labor and progressives if Lew can be confirmed despite the possibility that he was involved in union busting.

    What it says is that no one’s minding the store, so to speak. It says labor et al can be safely ignored when considering massive decisions about the future. We see this dynamic in play with most, if not all “progressive” constituencies. What influence does the enviro constituency have over Dept. of Interior, EPA and so on? What influence does a peace-loving “progressive” constituency have when it’s pushing for Chuck Hagel, who just promised Chuck Schumer his most important task as SECDEF will be to prepare for a war on Iran?

    At this point, I’m trying to find one progressive constituency anyone need take seriously at all. As such, I do believe you’ve hit the nail on the head. (Great posts, David)

    Ford Prefect

    January 15, 2013 at 8:08 pm

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