09.07.11

Unions Turn on Obama

Disappointed and angry labor unions have lost their enthusiasm for the president just as he needs their help for reelection. Eleanor Clift on whether this marriage can be saved.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis came up with a way to show her support for American workers building fuel-efficient cars: She traded in her luxury Cadillac Esplanade for a silver-colored Chevy Equinox. “I call it The Bullet,” she says, because it “speedily gets me where I want to go.”

Symbols are important, and the recovery of the bailed-out auto industry is one of President Obama’s major accomplishments. But Obama isn’t getting much credit from his allies in the labor movement who expected far more from a Democratic president they did so much to help elect.

If Obama is having difficulty finding the right path to reviving the economy, organized labor also is at a crossroads, rethinking how best to serve working people. The Democratic National Convention, scheduled for next August in Charlotte, is in a city without a single union hotel, “somewhat of an insult,” says Joseph McCartin, who directs an initiative on labor and the working poor at Georgetown University. “Simply reelecting Obama is no guarantee there will be any more pro-labor policies."

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has already served notice that his union dollars will not help bankroll the convention.

It’s hard to see much enthusiasm for Obama’s reelection, other than out of fear that the alternative could be worse. Warming up the crowd in Detroit before Obama’s Labor Day visit, Teamsters president James Hoffa likened GOP-led opposition to collective bargaining rights to a “war on workers” and pledged union support to defeat the Tea Party and its allies. “Everybody here has a vote…President Obama, this is your army,” he said. “We are ready to march. Let’s take these sons of bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong.”

About the only thing labor and Obama can agree on is the need to defeat the Tea Party. Yet Hoffa’s fiery language is another distraction for the president as he tries to focus attention on the retooled plan for generating jobs that he will unveil before a joint session of Congress on Thursday evening. There were calls for Obama to apologize for his ally’s overheated rhetoric, and some Tea Party activists and conservative bloggers assailed Hoffa, saying the phrase “take out” suggests violence—though the context of the remarks makes it clear the Teamsters head was talking about the ballot box.

The gap between labor’s needs and what the administration is prepared to deliver is apparent on Obama’s Jobs and Competitiveness Council, where Trumka is one of only two union representatives on the 26-member group headed by General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt, who’s been in the news more for outsourcing jobs than creating them. “It’s a business committee,” Trumka said dismissively at a breakfast with reporters in Washington. They only want to do “little nibbly things.”

A former coal miner who rose through the ranks, Trumka says he told Obama when they met last month, “Do not look at what is possible; look at what is necessary. If you only propose what you think they will accept, they control the agenda.”

With job creation in August at zero, one in five construction workers unemployed and a manufacturing base decimated by globalization and technology, labor unions are lashing out at the president, and sometimes at each other. The United Auto Workers supports a pending trade agreement with South Korea; the AFL-CIO opposes it. The Teamsters and pipefitters support building a pipeline from Canada to Texas that has drawn protests in front of the White House for weeks, straining the “Blue-Green alliance” forged between labor and environmentalists a decade ago in the wake of violent protests when the World Trade Association gathered in Seattle.

Divisions among unions are not unusual, and they’re usually based on practical concerns. Unions whose members get jobs in engineering and construction want to explore and drill; those that don’t have a direct interest are either neutral or come down on the progressive side with the enviros.

Overall, though, labor is not happy with Obama. “Most workers voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries,” says a labor organizer who did not want to be quoted seeming to disparage the president.  “Everywhere there were blue-collar workers, she cleaned his clock.”

Labor’s top priority is the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to unionize workers. But it wasn’t high on the White House agenda and has languished on Capitol Hill. Adding to the friction, Obama didn’t bring any prominent labor people into the White House; quite the opposite, many of his top advisers have Wall Street and banking connections. Still, he is more sympathetic to union concerns than George W. Bush, or than what labor could expect from a President Romney or Perry.

The fact that Obama is seen as cool to labor is not as novel a situation as it may seem, says Robert Reich, who was Bill Clinton’s labor secretary before returning to teaching.  “Clinton promised labor law reform, and they never got it. It rapidly sank to the bottom of his agenda. Democratic presidents rely enormously on unions as ground troops, and then take them for granted. Unions don’t really have much of an option,” says Reich.

What bothers labor leaders more than legislative lapses is Obama’s failure to step up when he’s needed.

What bothers labor leaders more than legislative lapses is Obama’s failure to step up when he’s needed with words of encouragement. Except for one brief statement in support of unions in Wisconsin, Obama kept his distance from the demonstrations that roiled the state capitol for weeks over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to slash employee benefits. Vice President Joe Biden, always an outspoken friend of labor, was supposed to speak in Wisconsin until the White House reportedly quashed the invitation. At least that’s what the unions believe. There were other strikes too, like last month’s walkout at Verizon, where “communications workers hoped for some encouraging words from the White House and there weren’t any,” says Reich.

With the August jobs numbers the bleakest since 1945, Obama will need a whole lot more words and deeds to regain the confidence of the labor movement and its crucial ground troops.