Pace of Change Under Obama Frustrates Unions

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by
The New York Times

Pace of Change Under Obama Frustrates Unions

by
Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Steven Greenhouse

WASHINGTON - For eight years under George W. Bush, union officials barely set foot inside the White House. But 10 days after President Obama took office, the nation's most powerful labor leaders mingled in the Blue Room, moments after the new president, a man they helped put there, signed a string of executive orders undoing Mr. Bush's policies.

The mood was euphoric. "He walked in with the biggest smile," James P. Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said of Mr. Obama, "saying, ‘Welcome back to your White House.' "

Today that euphoria is giving way to a mixture of frustration and unease, as union leaders are growing concerned that the Obama White House has not delivered as much as they had expected. Some criticize him for not pushing hard enough or moving fast enough on their issues, while others blame the deep recession and Republican opposition for his failure to do more.

Mr. Obama has delayed a push for the unions' No. 1 legislative priority, a measure to make it easier for workers to organize. He faces potential conflict with unions on trade, and on how fast to push for immigration reform. And on health care, friction between labor and the White House is suddenly spilling out into the open.

In response, Mr. Obama is renewing his courtship of the labor movement, whose members worked as foot soldiers in his campaign and spent August doggedly defending his health plan at town-hall-style meetings across the country. On Monday, the president will mark Labor Day by speaking at an A.F.L.-C.I.O. picnic in Cincinnati. During his visit, he is expected to name Ron Bloom, who heads the president's automotive task force, to a second role in the administration as manufacturing czar. The next week, Mr. Obama will address the A.F.L.-C.I.O. convention in Pittsburgh.

"He gets an A for effort, and an incomplete for results," the incoming president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., Richard L. Trumka.

While labor leaders, including the current A.F.L.-C.I.O. president, John J. Sweeney, say they remain extremely supportive of the president - especially his handling of the economic crisis - Mr. Trumka set off an uproar last week when he warned that unions would not support a health care bill that lacks a government-backed insurance plan. It was a shot across the bow to the White House, which is weighing whether to compromise on the so-called public option.

Another top union leader, Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, cautioned that if Mr. Obama abandons the public option, "it will be harder to gin our people up on other issues." Mr. McEntee said he had noticed a shift in sentiment even since July, when 14 union leaders spent 45 minutes in the White House Roosevelt Room with the president and top aides like David Axelrod.

"He said, ‘You've stood shoulder to shoulder with me' - and I'm paraphrasing here - ‘I want you there, and I'm going to fight for you,' " Mr. McEntee said. "When we left, I think we were all on maybe not cloud nine, but cloud four. I shook hands with all the staff, Axelrod was there. This was the person we elected; this was our president with a voice. It felt good." And now? Mr. McEntee paused. "Well," he said, "not as good."

Blue-collar workers have long been a little bit suspicious of Mr. Obama, who has never quite been able to demonstrate that he is one of them. Still, they stood strongly behind him once he became the Democratic presidential nominee, contributing money, running phone banks and knocking on doors in critical swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The two main labor federations, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Change to Win, said unions and their political action committees had spent nearly $450 million in the presidential race. The addition of Joseph R. Biden Jr. to the ticket as Mr. Obama's running mate helped with his union bona fides. So did the endorsement of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts.

Today, Mr. Biden continues to play an important role as a link between the unions and the president. But Mr. Kennedy's death is a significant loss, one that may force Mr. Obama to work that much harder to win union support for any health care compromise he might make, said Geoff Garin, a Democratic strategist.

"Ted Kennedy was an incredibly important Good Housekeeping seal of approval, and if he lent his prestige to whatever compromise Obama felt he had to make, that would mean an awful lot to people in the labor movement," Mr. Garin said. Mr. Obama, he added, must "persuade labor unions and others that his commitment is to getting it right in the interest of the average working person."

He may have an easier time with some than others. Mr. Hoffa, for instance, said the public option was not a make-or-break provision for him; he is open to legislation containing a "a trigger" to create a public plan if private efforts to expand coverage fail. Mr. McEntee, by contrast, dismissed the trigger idea as "not a real public option."

Dennis Rivera, the point man on health care for the Service Employees International Union, said simply that unions would have to be flexible. "Politics is the art of the possible," he said, adding that Mr. Obama's "heart is in the right place."

Still, there are tensions between unions and the White House on matters beyond health care. Trade is an especially contentious issue; unions are irked that Mr. Obama has backed away from his campaign pledge to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement. And the United Steelworkers, which represents tire workers, is pressing Mr. Obama to punish China now that the United States International Trade Commission has ruled that China is hurting American manufacturers by inundating the market with cheap tires.

Union leaders have also been patient with Mr. Obama, both on immigration (they want legislation offering a path to citizenship for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants) and the Employee Free Choice Act, the bill to make organizing easier. In the July White House meeting, Mr. Obama made a strong pitch that health care should come first.

Labor leaders were willing to accept that strategy, said David E. Bonior, a former Michigan congressman who is the chairman of the National Labor Coordinating Committee, an umbrella group. But with Mr. Obama planning a major speech before Congress this week to lay out his priorities in a health bill, Mr. Bonior said, union members want reassurance that he will stick his neck out for their priorities.

"They don't want him to leave it up to seven or eight committee chairmen," Mr. Bonior said. "They want him to be the leader and to fight for this stuff."

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