Labor faces new reality with little help from Obama

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka talks to President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

In the early days of the Obama administration, organized labor had grand visions of pushing through a sweeping agenda that would help boost sagging membership and help revive union strength.

Now labor faces this reality: Public employee unions are in a drawn-out fight for their very survival in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states where GOP lawmakers have curbed collective bargaining rights.

Also, many union leaders are grousing that the president they worked so hard to elect has not focused enough on job creation and other bold plans to get their members back to work.

“Obama campaigned big, but he’s governing small,” said Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Labor remains a core Democratic constituency and union leaders will stand with Obama in Detroit this Labor Day, where he will address thousands of rank-and-file members during the city’s annual parade Monday.

But at the same time, unions have begun shifting money and resources out of Democratic congressional campaigns and back to the states in a furious effort to reverse or limit GOP measures that could wipe out union rolls.

The AFL-CIO’s president, Richard Trumka, says it’s part of a new strategy for labor to build an independent voice separate from the Democratic Party.

Union donations to federal candidates at the beginning of this year were down about 40 percent compared with the same period in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Last month, a dozen trade unions said they would boycott next year’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., over frustration on the economy and to protest the event’s location in a right-to-work state.

“The pendulum has swung a long way,” said Ross Eisenbrey, a vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute. “In the next year, I think all unions can really hope for is to keep more bad things from happening and to get as much of a jobs program enacted as possible.”

Unions fell short last month in their recall campaign to wrest control of the Wisconsin Senate from Republicans. That fight was a consequence of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public-employee unions as a part of a cost-cutting effort. Now they are spending millions more in Ohio, where they hope to pass a statewide referendum in November that would repeal a similar measure limiting union rights.

It’s a far cry from the early optimism unions had after Obama came into office. Back then, unions hoped a Democratic-controlled Congress would pass legislation to make it easier for unions to organize workers. But business groups fought that proposal hard, and it never came to a vote.

Union leaders grew more disappointed when the president’s health care overhaul didn’t include a government-run insurance option. Then Obama agreed to extend President George W. Bush‘s tax cuts for the wealthy.

Obama came out in favor of trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that most unions say will cost American jobs. Despite campaigning in favor of raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour, Obama hasn’t touched the issue since taking office.

It didn’t help that Obama declined union invitations to go to Wisconsin, where thousands of protesters mobilized against the anti-union measure. Candidate Obama had promised to “put on sneakers” and walk a picket line himself when union rights were threatened.

Obama has handed labor smaller victories that didn’t have to go through Congress, like granting the nation’s 44,000 airport screeners limited collective bargaining rights for the first time. The National Labor Relations Board and other agencies filled with Obama’s appointees have made it easier for unions to organize workers in the airline, railroad and health care industries.

The NLRB has taken a beating from Republicans after filing a lawsuit that accuses Boeing of opening a new plant in South Carolina in retaliation against union workers in Washington state.

“The field has tilted against labor so that whatever small victories they get are just tinkering around the edges and get tremendous pushback by conservatives,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

But labor’s frustration with Obama reached new heights this summer as Trumka accused him of working with tea party Republicans on deficit reduction instead of “stepping up to the plate” on jobs.

Labor unions and other liberal groups want Obama to push a major stimulus bill with hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending on infrastructure projects like roads, bridges and transit systems. Even if it’s rejected in the GOP-controlled House, unions want to see Obama show more leadership and take a bold stand in favor of stimulus spending.

That’s not likely to happen. Constrained by budget cuts and a tight debt ceiling, Obama is expected to propose a limited package worth far less than the $787 billion stimulus passed in 2009.

The plan will call on Congress to extend current payroll tax cuts and jobless benefits, spend money for new construction projects and offer incentives to businesses to hire more workers.

James Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said Obama should challenge businesses with healthy bottom lines to spend more in the U.S. by hiring new workers, building plants and expanding operations. If they don’t, Hoffa said, Obama should call them out as disloyal.

“I think the president should challenge the patriotism of these American corporations that are sitting on the sidelines,” Hoffa said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

He added, “We’ve got to turn this around and say, ‘Hey, we are an American company. We owe an obligation to America. Let’s put America back to work.’”

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis defended Obama from liberal critics, saying the administration has established many programs to create jobs, worked to extend unemployment insurance benefits and helped save the auto industry.

“The president is very concerned about job creation,” Solis told reporters at the National Press Club. “That been our priority from day one.”

Union face a tougher challenge in the states.

Walker wanted to patch the state’s budget shortfall by requiring state workers to pay more for their health care and pension benefits. He said curbing bargaining rights was important in the long term to prevent unions from reversing the move in future negotiations.

Republican Wisconsin state Rep. Robin Vos said the big money spent by pro-labor forces in the recall elections shows “that they’re not about protecting workers rights, they’re about protecting political power.”

“This is the last grasp of those political bosses to be able to showcase why they need to have the political power, and they lost,” he said.

Conservatives say Walker’s measure has done just what it promised, closing budget shortfalls without laying off teachers and other workers.

“As the changes have had time to sink in, people appear to be accepting it, and it appears to be part of the new status quo,” said James Sherk, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

A measure passed in Tennessee this year ended collective bargaining for teachers unions in the state. In Oklahoma, lawmakers repealed a law that had required large municipalities to collectively bargain with municipal employees.

“The fact that you didn’t see much pushback in those states, I think, is significant,” Sherk said.

Union leaders see a more sinister plan not only to cut union benefits, but to crush unions altogether, along with their political largesse to Democrats. The Wisconsin law, for example, bans automatic withdrawal of union dues and requires public unions to hold annual votes to avoid decertification.

In Ohio, unions are more hopeful that they can win a November referendum to undo the state’s collective bargaining law that passed this spring. A Quinnipiac University poll in July found that 56 percent of Ohio voters say the new collective bargaining law should be repealed, compared with 32 percent who favor keeping it in place.

“A victory in Ohio would be a tremendous shot against the bow of Republicans to not mess with the unions,” Lichtenstein said.

It could also help unions show they are still a political force to be reckoned with at both the state and national level.

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Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., and Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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9 Responses to "Labor faces new reality with little help from Obama"

  1. Sandune  September 5, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Since when does Labor hire anyone?

    • Jeffrey King  September 5, 2011 at 10:03 pm

      In what fairy tale did anyone ever start a business to hire people? Labor is always an inconvenient necessity.

      The race to the bottom is still underway. Technology and automation are in direct conflict with increasing population. Why would any business expand when they are already have excess capacity?

      Congratulations to the lean and mean corporations. Too bad they forgot what Henry Ford figured out in order to grow his business. Workers are consumers and they might even buy stuff if they are paid enough to do more than exist as servants.

      That cash on the sidelines is how wealth is distributed (or not). I guess nobody has noticed the Walmart economy is just a different version of labor camps of old. Company towns in coal, textiles, timber.

      Yeah, let’s do that again.

  2. bmclellan  September 5, 2011 at 9:53 am

    If the unions want to shake things up they need to present a vetted and viable candidate to run against Obama as a write-in candidate.
    Or better yet, demand a democrat primary runoff to challenge the neocon currently occupying the office of President.

    It’s not too late to stick a pin in this deflated balloon called the Obama presidency as we virtually have nothing left to lose..

  3. Sandune  September 5, 2011 at 11:16 am

    Many members of my family are Union members but only because the Movie Studios demanded it. They are not union voters.

    Could it be that the Unions in their push for better wages and benefits have caused our corporations to move off shore? Was there no compromise debated?

    Today at noon Pacific Time, there is a discussion of several Republican Candidates being aired. I will try to watch it if I can remember to get out of the pool in time to get home. Memory slips!!!

    Enjoy your day

  4. bmclellan  September 5, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Have yourself a fine day also Sandra, the longer we are in tooth the more precious they be..

    As for the Unions Sandra, they have rested on their laurels long enough and need to make some real noise these next 14 months starting now.

    Their real message should be to the private sector that when and if we fall by the wayside no one will be spared in the rape and ongoing planned pillaging of our fiscal and economic security..

    To simplify, they should be screaming, you will be next !!

  5. woody188  September 5, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    I’m afraid the public employee gravy train has come to a grinding halt. Maybe they should have bought American when it mattered those many years ago.

    I’m really interested to see how the vote goes on repealing Senate Bill 5 (ended collective bargaining for public employees) in Ohio this November. It’s going to be close either way.

  6. Robert  September 5, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    Every person working out there is “labor” no matter how you slice it. People like to blame the unions but the country is in such a mind set it wants to blame workers everywhere for all of its’ problems people love to take management’s side on every economic issue. The only “workers” out there making any gains right now are the two faced politicians people still consider to be their “representatives”.

  7. griff  September 5, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Unions have far outlived their usefulness and their necessity, in particular the public variety. They’re as corrupt as the politicans they buy. They either need to be reformed themselves, or go the way of the dinosaur.

  8. Danny Adams  September 5, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    Union membership last year was only 12% of the total work force. Exactly how much clout could they have? And on the flip side, how much blame for the bad economy is on their shoulders versus them being a favorite punching bag for the real culprits?

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