By Michael Paarlberg

The nice thing about summits is that they bring together people who might not otherwise get the chance to meet and talk. The bad thing is that they often accomplish little more than that.

History has no shortage of summits with noble agendas and little to show for them in the end. Think the Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David in 2000, the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 or the G-20 assembly in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2013. Time will tell whether the June 23 Summit on Working Families, convened by the White House, will produce more than talking points. If it doesn’t, it will be a testament to the ongoing failure of our political process to enact substantive reforms to improve the quality of life of American workers — even when it comes to things pretty much everyone agrees on.

Equal pay for equal work, paid family leave, affordable child care — the summit’s key demands are so broadly popular with the public that, if nothing else, they serve as an embarrassing reminder of some of the basic benchmarks of civilized society that the United States has yet to achieve. We’re not just talking rich nations. Only three out of 185 countries surveyed by the United Nations do not grant any paid maternity leave: the U.S., Papua New Guinea and Oman. That’s called being a world leader and not a follower, I suppose.

And yet even though polls find 90 percent of voters support guaranteeing equal pay for women, 75 percent are for expanding access to affordable child care, 72 percent want paid family leave and 73 percent would like to raise the minimum wage, bills that address these demands precisely, like the Paycheck Fairness Act, suffer death-by-filibuster, if they even make it that far. The FAMILY Act would guarantee 12 weeks of paid maternity or paternity leave, a very modest proposal that would still leave us well behind every other developed country in the world (in the United Kingdom and Australia, it’s 52 weeks). Obama belatedly endorsed the act at the summit. It isn’t likely to make it out of committee.

Previous White House labor initiatives have not been rousing successes. Obama’s Jobs Council had a rough run. It caught flak from the left for naming Jeff Immelt, who presided over the layoffs of tens of thousands of employees at General Electric, as its chair, and it faced dissent from union participants before it was quietly disbanded. Still, Obama can’t be faulted for trying, whether through his bully pulpit or executive authority.

There are serious limitations to both methods of change. Given Democrats’ lack of a filibuster-proof majority, Obama’s stumping for a minimum wage hike doesn’t change the math in Congress. This is in spite of the cause’s cross-party appeal. Indeed, even some high profile Republicans such as Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum have voiced support. However, the fact that none of them currently hold public office is no coincidence. It highlights the very different dynamic for Republicans in Congress. Cowed by the threat of tea party primary challenges, a far-right faction now steers the legislative process.

Obama hasn’t been afraid to use his executive authority, but a president can do only so much on his own. Consequently the actual policy changes coming out of the summit are largely symbolic. Obama has directed federal agencies to allow workers to ask for flexible work schedules, but they should already have these provisions, as they have been legally required for federal workers since the ’70s. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio had a point when he slammed the summit, saying, “Telling federal agencies to do what they’re already supposed to do and endorsing partisan legislation that will never pass is not the sort of bold, innovative leadership we need.”

Apart from just aiming low, Obama’s reliance on executive orders has basic structural limits since such standards can apply only to the federal workforce and contractors. The government is the nation’s largest employer, and it is vitally important that it be an industry standard setter in wages and work conditions. But in the context of a still weak labor market and an ongoing, decades-old campaign to vilify the federal workforce, headlines like “Obama Wants Federal Workers to Have More Family Time” can provoke more resentment than inspiration.

Especially in light of two anti-worker Supreme Court decisions at the end of June, legislation is needed to create something resembling a real labor reform agenda. The problem is that isn’t happening at the federal level, and it won’t anytime soon. Only states and local governments are making an effort. Obama acknowledged as much at the summit, praising California, New Jersey and Rhode Island for enacting paid family leave, and Connecticut and New York for paid sick leave. But as the reform agenda migrates away from Washington, so too does the push back. When Florida voters passed a local referendum in 2013 guaranteeing paid sick leave for all workers in Orange County, state legislators promptly overturned it and passed a law blocking local governments from setting sick leave standards. Nine other states enacted similar laws last year, all copy-and-paste legislation pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobbying network that drafts right-wing “model bills” on behalf of its corporate backers and introduces hundreds of them each year in statehouses throughout the country.

With Congress in gridlock, the Supreme Court in thrall to business and the president reaching the limits of his authority, there’s little workers can count on from Washington except further punishment. Activists have set their sights on counties and states, and so too have business lobbies. Thus where labor-friendly lawmakers get elected, minimum wages go up, and workers don’t have to choose between going to the doctor and keeping their job. Where they don’t, tough luck. The upside is that change is possible after all. The downside: Whether your job protections measure up more to Oman or Australia will be more and more a question of where in the U.S. you happen to live.

Michael Paarlberg is a Ph.D. candidate in government at Georgetown University. He has written for The Guardian, New Republic, Slate, Huffington Post, Jacobin and Washington City Paper. Follow him on Twitter @Mpaarlberg.

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