Labor and Obama: Sweethearts No More

Friday, 12 March 2010 08:37 By Dick Meister, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

Labor and Obama: Sweethearts No More
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Beth Rankin, Casie Yoder / aflcio2008)

President Obama's honeymoon with organized labor has finally ended. It was a long honeymoon, though, more than a year and full of passion. But, alas, labor's ardor has cooled.

The pair aren't likely to split up, although, like so many post-honeymoon couples, they are sure to wrangle occasionally - or maybe frequently. And right now is definitely one of those occasions.

That was made very clear at the recent winter meeting of the AFL-CIO's Executive Council in Orlando. The union presidents on the 58-member council all were openly frustrated with Obama. Several also spoke of the "angst and anger" of their unions' members.

Unions, you should understand, put more than $200 million into Obama's presidential campaign and the campaigns of Congressional Democrats last Fall. What's more, they put several hundred thousand members to work on the campaigns. They helped turn out millions of working and middle class voters for the Democrats.

Labor naturally expected much in return, especially in light of campaign promises by Obama and the other candidates. But the union presidents were right. Unions have received relatively little in return for their extraordinary efforts, and they rightly complained loudly and angrily at the Executive Council meeting - in their closed-door sessions and publicly as well.

"We obviously hoped that more would have been done," the Teamsters' James Hoffa told reporters. "We're disappointed that jobs were not emphasized the first year. We're disappointed that the president got bogged down in the health care debate."

Hoffa acknowledged, however, that Obama "has been slowed down by the right wing."

That was echoed by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. He said that Obama "really does get it. He understands what working people are going through and he really does listen and we really have a seat at the table, but he faces tremendous Republican opposition."

That didn't ease the other leaders' disappointment - or, in many cases, their anger, if not hostility, to their supposed friend in the White House. One of labor's complaints, in fact, is that there are no unionists in Obama's inner circle there.

The leaders were appalled, as one union president said, that Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, condoned the firing in February of all 74 teachers at a Rhode Island High School after their union rejected the principal's demand for changes in their working conditions.

But though Duncan has not shown himself to be a friend of labor, Obama has at least appointed an absolutely pro-union secretary of labor, Hilda Solis. She's been one of the relatively few bright spots for unions in Obama's administration - the complete opposite of her predecessor, Elaine Chao, who was secretary in the notoriously anti-union Bush administration.

Solis has returned the Labor Department to its vital role as an advocate and protector of working Americans. No longer is the department ignoring employer violations of laws and regulations designed to protect the job and union rights and safety of American workers.

So what else was labor expecting from Obama and his appointees? What are some of the things they were promised, or at least expected, but which for the most part have not materialized? They certainly did not expect, as many union leaders and rank-and-filers have complained, that he would ignore his backers on Main Street while bailing out Wall Street.

It may not be Obama's fault, but labor is particularly angry that wages have remained stagnant throughout his year in office and that he has failed to implement economic policies that would create more jobs and curb ever-rising unemployment.

Unions are particularly concerned, too, that Obama has supported taxing the high-cost health plans - so-called Cadillac plans - that so many union members have. And they want to know why he hasn't pushed for a government option as part of the administration's health care proposals.

Labor's most urgent plea is for passage of the long-stalled Employee Free Choice Act that would make it much easier for workers to unionize. Obama has voiced support for the measure, but labor is angered because he's done little to push for its passage.

The economic stimulus package that Obama did push through Congress got high marks from labor, however, as have some of his trade policies that favor American manufacturers. But labor is unhappy that Obama apparently is not planning another stimulus.

One of the most urgent problems facing unions is the inability of the National Labor Relations Board to carry out its extremely important duties as the nation's chief labor law administrator and enforcer.

Thanks mainly to anti-union moves by Congressional Republicans and the Bush administration, the five-member board has been limping along for more than two years with just two members - a Democratic appointee and a Republican. They've invariably split one-to-one on all but the minor, non-controversial cases that have come before them, or ruled against even hearing some important major cases.

Obama has put forward nominees to fill the board, only to be thwarted by GOP maneuvers in Congress that have kept them from being confirmed. He could get around that by making appointments while Congress is in recess, but much to labor's disgust, Obama refuses to do that as a matter of principle.

Labor's unhappiness with Obama could very well cause serious trouble for Democrats in this fall's elections if it means losing the strong labor support that helped so much in the election of Obama and other Democrats in 2008. In any case, the union presidents in Orlando said that despite Obama's disappointing record so far, they'll stick with him and the Democrats.

Truth be told, they haven't much choice. Their failure to mobilize union money and members in behalf of Democratic candidates who may or may not be as labor-friendly as they wish will only assure the election of Republicans who don't want to be friends, much less honeymoon with them. 

Last modified on Friday, 12 March 2010 09:09