Labor Unions Adjust to New Reality Under Obama
WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., and Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.