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Unions Bash Democrats, Warn of Political Fallout

James Hohmann

Labor groups furious at Democrats such as Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) are threatening to stay home during this fall's midterm elections. (Photo: AP photo composite by POLITICO)

Labor groups are furious with the Democrats they helped put in office - and are threatening to stay home this fall when Democratic incumbents will need their help fending off Republican challengers. 

The Senate's failure to confirm labor lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board was just the latest blow, but the frustrations have been building for months. 

"Here's labor
getting thrown under the bus again," said John Gage, the national
president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which
represents 600,000 workers. "It's really frustrating for labor, and a
lot of union people are thinking: We put out big time in money and
volunteers and support. And it seems like the little things that could
have been aren't being done." 

The 52-33 vote on Becker - who needed 60 to be confirmed - really set
labor unions on edge, but the list of setbacks is growing. 

The so-called "card check" bill that would make it easier to unionize employees has gone nowhere. A pro-union Transportation Security Administration nominee quit
before he even got a confirmation vote. And even though unions got a
sweetheart deal to keep their health plans tax-free under the Senate
health care bill, that bill has collapsed, leaving unions exposed again. 

Union leaders warn that the Democrats' lackluster performance in power
is sapping the morale of activists going into the midterm elections. 

"Right now if we don't get positive changes to the agenda, we're going
to have a hard time getting members out to work," said United
Steelworkers International President Leo W. Gerard, in an interview. 

"There's no use pretending any longer." 

The biggest threat, of course, is apathy from a Democratic constituency that has a history of mobilizing for elections. 

"You're just not going to be able to go to our membership in the
November elections and say, 'Come on, let's do it again. Look at what
the Democratic administration has done for us!'" Gage said. "People are
going to say, 'Huh? What have the Democrats done for us?'" 

Kim Freeman Brown, the executive director of a D.C.-based nonprofit
called American Rights at Work, acknowledged "frustration" with the
lack of movement. 

"I implore Congress to listen to the voice of their constituents who
want change, and so far we haven't delivered good enough on that
promise," she said. "To the degree that we don't address these real
bread-and-butter issues, we will have failed America's workers." 

Gage warned that Democrats will struggle to energize blue-collar voters
if they don't score a few victories soon. Union leaders say they will
closely watch as a new "jobs bill" emerges to see if it includes more
labor-friendly provisions or tax cuts for small businesses. 

When you talk to labor officials these days, much of their animus is directed at Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who helped filibuster Becker's confirmation

"Ben Nelson has got principles until you buy him off," Gerard said. 

group affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, called
Change That Works, had defended Nelson's support for an unpopular
health care reform bill in his home state.

But the Nebraska director of that group, Jane Kleeb, now criticizes
Nelson for not allowing the Becker nomination to come to the floor for
an up-or-down vote. And Bill Samuel, legislative director for the
AFL-CIO, accused Nelson of following a "double standard" since he had
argued that the nominees of then-President George W. Bush should get
up-or-down votes.

Another AFL-CIO spokesman, Eddie Vale, pinpointed Nelson, saying he had "let down" working families.
Nelson said Becker's stance on labor issues made him worry whether he would be "impartial" in making NLRB decisions.

But labor unions can't pin all their blame on Nelson. The failure of a
wide range of union priorities has been deflating for the labor
movement, which seemed destined to be one of the biggest beneficiaries
of Barack Obama's presidency.

And with unemployment hovering around 10 percent, special treatment for unions has only served to harm the movement.

On health care, unions found themselves in a defensive posture. They
worked in early January to carve out an exception from an excise tax on
so-called Cadillac insurance policies, only to see the package fall
apart, with recriminations about just the kind of back-room deal making
they had engaged in.

Obama said he would push for greater unionization at the Transportation
Security Administration, but it hasn't happened. Obama has pushed for
education programs that have long been unpopular with teachers' unions.
And then, in his State of the Union address, the president called for
Congress to strengthen trade relationships with South Korea, Panama and

The support for those trade agreements irked Gerard, the leader of the
steelworkers union, who praises Speaker Nancy Pelosi but blames the
upper chamber.

"Our problem is the Senate," Gerard said. "The only thing they can pass
is the washroom. I don't want to tar Democrats. Not all Democrats in
the Senate are problems."

The situation in the Senate became more frustrating when Democrats lost
their 60-seat supermajority with the election of Massachusetts
Republican Scott Brown.

Brown's first significant vote was a "no" on Becker.

"I think you see how working people feel by how they voted in
Massachusetts," Gerard said. "In Massachusetts, it wasn't an anger that
the government had done too much. It was an anger that there hadn't
been enough change."

Democrats are now scrambling to shore up support for labor unions, but
they don't seem to have a game plan for more union-friendly legislation
in advance of the midterm elections.

But Katie Packer, executive director of the anti-card-check Workforce
Fairness Institute, said labor groups would have achieved a lot more if
they hadn't overreached.

"I'm from Detroit, so the concept of labor overreach is not lost on
me," she said. "What we've seen more than anything is an attempt by big
labor is to be especially greedy and grab for things that weren't

Manu Raju contributed to this report.

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