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Under Obama, few gains for labor

Leaders evaluate political alliance

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press / September 5, 2011

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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 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 today, where he will address thousands of rank-and-file members during the city’s annual Labor Day parade.

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, said it is 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 Governor 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 is a far cry from the early optimism that 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 did not 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 has not touched the issue since taking office.

It did not help that Obama declined union invitations to go to Wisconsin, where protesters mobilized against the antiunion measure. As a candidate, Obama had promised to walk a picket line himself when union rights were threatened.

Obama has handed labor smaller victories that did not have to go through Congress, like granting the nation’s 44,000 airport screeners limited collective bargaining rights for the first time.