Is Union Support Eroding for Obama, Democrats?

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AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka and President Obama The Democratic National Convention early next September will be held in Charlotte. It's a city without a single union hotel. And it's located in Right to Work North Carolina. Union officials and partisans don't like this. The party's choice of convention site, then, can be seen as a symbol of a growing rift between the party and the unions. Union leaders, for all practical purposes, have nowhere else to go. And most rank and file still vote reliably Democratic. A schism is almost out of the question. But in the wake of the party's 2010 midterm election disaster, union officials increasingly have been urging the Obama administration and congressional Democrats to be much more aggressive in advancing the interests of organized labor. As 2012 looms, they're laying the groundwork for an alternative strategy. 

Labor leaders in this country rarely have wasted an opportunity to denounce corporations and the "right-wing" politicians who support them. Yet Teamster President James P. Hoffa, no more a shrinking violet than his late father, displayed a level of combativeness unusual even for him during the annual Labor Day festivities in his home city of Detroit. In his warm-up speech before the main event, President Obama, Hoffa described Republicans as leading a "war on workers" and pledged to defeat advocates of smaller government. "Everybody here has a vote," he exhorted the rank-and-file union crowd. "President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let's take these Tea Party sons of bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong." Virgin-eared critics have affected shock and indignation over Hoffa's utterance, "sons of bitches." They would do better to focus on his statement, "This is your army." For it is a fact: From the Great Depression onward, unions have been the best-organized segment of the Democratic Party, providing it with dedicated cadres of voters, volunteers, and donors.

A growing number of union bosses, however, are declaring that the Democratic Party shouldn't take their support for granted. They believe that its leaders, from President Obama on down, have grown fearful of confrontation with the Republican Party and supporters of the free market generally. And they're not above opposing Democrats who stray. Unions actively campaigned against incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., during the 2010 Democratic primary in retaliation for her opposition to the union-supported (and misnamed) Employee Free Choice Act. Lincoln managed to survive the party challenge from Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, but would be defeated by a wide margin in the general election by Republican John Boozman. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in particular has been outspoken about independence from the Democratic Party. As NLPC had reported in August, Trumka announced his intent to create a union-driven "Super PAC" which unlike standard PACs (political action committees), would face virtually no limits on individual contributions or donor identity requirements. Later in the month, he made good on that promise. Trumka emphasized that his Super PAC would "build structures that work for working people" rather than "build structures for others."

Trumka doesn't rule out support for Democrats, but insists that unions will get a better return on their political investments if they work only for candidates who advance the progressive cause. The AFL-CIO chieftain was high gear on this subject back on May 20 in a speech at the National Press Club. He fumed:

Budget proposals unveiled in Washington and state capitals across our country revealed a despicable canvas of cruelty...And not just meanness. Destructiveness. A willful desire to block the road to the future. How else do you explain governors of states with mass unemployment refusing to allow high-speed rail lines to be built in their states? How else can you explain these same governors' plans to defund higher education, close schools and fire teachers, when we know that without an educated America, we have no future?

Trumka stated unions shouldn't tie themselves to any one candidate or party:

We will spend the summer holding elected leaders in Congress as well as the states accountable on one measure: Are they improving or degrading life for working families?

We are looking hard at how we work in the nation's political arena. We have listened hard, and what workers want is an independent labor movement that builds the power of working people - in the workplace and in political life...Our role is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate. It is to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our country.

It doesn't matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside - the outcome is the same either way. If leaders aren't blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working families' interests, working people will not support them. This is where our focus should be - now, in 2012 and beyond.

Union leaders are less than impressed by President Obama. Trumka views Obama's economic policies as half-hearted gestures. This August, in anticipation of the president's latest stimulus plan of targeted spending and tax cuts, Trumka stated: "If he's (Obama) talking about another percent or two break from a tax here and doing something with patent control, and doing three years down the road something with infrastructure bank, that's not going to get the job done." In the same vein, Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, has remarked, "Obama campaigned big, but he's governing small." Labor officials are especially dismayed that Obama declined union invitations to visit Wisconsin during the Capitol Building showdown earlier this year, where thousands of protestors had mobilized against Republican Governor Scott Walker and supporters in the legislature; as a candidate in 2008, Obama had vowed to "put on sneakers" and walk a picket line on behalf of a union.

There have been other disappointments. President Obama, with help from lead Democrats in Congress, delivered unions the health care overhaul law they craved, but minus any government-run insurance "option." Adding to the sense of betrayal, Obama last December signed a two-year extension of President George W. Bush's tax cuts - also known in progressive parlance as "tax cuts for the rich." The president also has come out in favor of free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that union leaders say will cost American jobs. Moreover, despite a promise by candidate Obama in 2008 to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour, he hasn't brought up the issue since. And the President's 26-member Jobs and Competitiveness Council (the successor to the Economic Recovery Advisory Board), formed this January and headed by General Electric Chairman & CEO Jeffrey Immelt, has only two union representatives, the AFL-CIO's Trumka and United Food & Commercial Workers President Joe Hansen.

In the face of all this, it may be little surprise that union donations to candidates for national office at the start of this year were down about 40 percent from the same time in 2009, according to the nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics. The selection by the Democratic National Committee of Charlotte as the 2012 convention site isn't likely to close that gap. A dozen unions in August, in fact, issued a joint statement indicating they would boycott the convention because of the city being situated in a Right to Work state. The selection is "somewhat of an insult," says Joseph McCartin, director of a Georgetown University project on labor and the working poor.

If labor leaders feel snubbed by Democrats on these and other matters, the question arises: Where else can they go? They're not about to flock to the Republican Party, whom they see as their traditional enemy. Relatively few GOP congressmen and state legislators, and then mainly in slower-growing Northeast and North Central states, in any given election cycle can be counted on to do the things that win union endorsements. Nor are union officials likely to lead the formation of a progressive third party. Such a move inevitably would split the Democrats' natural constituency, thus assuring Republican wins in toss-up states. Trumka knows that for better or worse, he's stuck with the Democrats. The nascent AFL-CIO Super PAC and other institution-building measures thus can be seen as political brinkmanship. By announcing that the AFL-CIO and member federations will withhold support from Democrats who are lackadaisical toward union goals, Trumka hopes to induce state and local party organizations to nominate more candidates willing to "walk the walk."

This puts Obama and his party's mainstream in a dilemma. On one hand, they must move rightward to win general elections. The handwriting is on the wall. The 2010 midterm elections were a windfall for Republicans, resulting in a pickup of 63 seats in the House of Representatives alone. The recent special election for the vacant seat of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., resulted in a victory for Republican Bob Turner, the first GOP victory in that congressional district in nearly 90 years. And the president's approval ratings now are hovering a little above the 40 percent mark. On the other hand, Democrats must obtain monetary and other support needed to run a successful campaign - the kind of support, in other words, that unions are best positioned to provide. If Obama in particular moves any closer to the center, he risks a challenge from his Left to his renomination.

Thus, we have a classic Catch-22: The Democrats must move rightward, yet can't afford to alienate the unions by moving rightward. Loud pronouncements by leaders of unions and other party blocs, especially blacks and Hispanics, might induce Democratic Party bosses to energize their "base," but at the cost of failure to expand it. The Democrats' best hope may well rest with Republicans nominating candidates widely perceived as unqualified, dogmatic or otherwise suspect.

Progressives as a whole may be their own worst enemies. Unable to admit to the possibility that their message isn't all that popular, they're pouncing on President Obama with increasing frequency, accusing him of being an inadequate messenger. If organized labor really wanted to be the deciding factor in 2012, it would change its message. Rather than continue its never-ending campaign to socialize the U.S. economy to the alleged benefit of that noble-sounding abstraction, "working families," the labor movement should seek more avenues of cooperation with employers. But that's not likely to happen in absence of internal challenges to current leadership. And with people like Richard Trumka in the driver's seat, it's hard to imagine too many union members willing to launch a challenge.

Related:

AFL-CIO Plans "Super PAC" to Boost Campaign Contributions

Why Are Media Ignoring Trumka's Background?