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Unions' Miscalculation of the Obama Administration 5/2/2012

By: Ricardo Torres

On April 30th, the National Labor Relations Board announced their highly anticipated changes to current labor laws. Read on to find our take on the changes. Despite the sweeping new changes to election rules, Big Labor is still not satisfied. Read our Inside Edge™ article to find out how Unions miscalculated the Obama administration.

The AFL/CIO’s efforts have been undermined by widespread infighting between two factions. There are those who supported former AFL/CIO President John Sweeney’s long term member growth strategy of putting policy members in key positions to change labor laws, and those who believed it was a waste to spend so much time, money and energy helping politicians get elected. Sweeney’s opponents believed the money could be better spent supporting organizing campaigns. In 2008, they thought this rift had finally been repaired. All doubts had been erased by having a true union supporter in the White House.

Where's the Love?

In the 2008 elections, Big Labor mobilized millions of volunteers and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help elect President Obama. Union bosses celebrated; never before had Labor’s voice resonated so strongly within our Capitol. The end of Labor’s decline was in sight, and former AFL/CIO President John Sweeney’s controversial strategy looked like it was finally paying off.

Fast-forward four years: Now the unions are angry at President Obama and the Democratic Party. AFL/CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters that the nation’s largest labor federation is scaling back their involvement with Obama and the Democrats in advance of the 2012 elections. What happened to the love fest? It sounds strange that Big Labor is so angry at the Obama administration. Haven’t his recess appointments to the NLRB made it possible to change over 50 years of labor law to benefit unions? This resentment just demonstrates how big a return Big Labor was expecting on their investment.

My history with unions is long and varied, but one of the most frustrating parts of it was my time lobbying Congress for the AFL/CIO and assisting legislative departments across the country to enact changes in labor law. Giving support to politicians was constant, but getting them to honor their commitments to be a strong advocate for labor was fleeting.

Big Labor has fought for years to get the perfect candidate in the White House. Everything was geared up for this jackpot and they were expecting sweeping labor law changes to ease the process of organizing new members. Big Labor thought they would get a free pass with Obama; instead, they found themselves on the outside looking in. Randi Weingarten, the current president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), confessed that the unions are to blame for their lack of progress in organizing new members and changing the NLRA to favor unions. “We got lazy,” she confessed. “We were just waiting for Obama to come to us and we stopped putting pressure on the politicians to pay us back for our support.”

Despite the monumental changes allowed by President Obama’s NLRB recess appointments, Big Labor still has many grievances with him, including the make-up of his Jobs and Competitiveness Council, where Trumka is one of the only two union representatives on the 26-member group (which, to add insult to injury, is headed by General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt). Additionally, Labor’s top legislative priority has been the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to unionize workers. Unfortunately for them, it was never very high on the White House’s agenda, and the Act was allowed to die on Capitol Hill. Furthermore, Obama has kept his distance from the demonstrations that roiled the Wisconsin state capitol for weeks over Governor Scott Walker’s plans. The final straw has been the Obama administration’s support for free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea; all while refusing to lend its support to the Verizon strikers.

Obama’s relationship with labor is not as novel a situation as it may seem, says Robert Reich, who was Bill Clinton’s labor secretary before he returned to teaching. The unions thought the same thing would happen with Bill Clinton, but he also let them down. “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's Next?

However, Labor seems to have finally figured out otherwise: At a February 2012 press conference, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced that the labor movement was reinventing itself, and would no longer depend on the Democratic Party to be their defenders. He said that the Democrats would be held more accountable for their support.

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) legal working group attorney and spokesperson Marina Sitrin stated that the OWS movement and labor unions are working closer together. The unions are helping to make the OWS group a political powerhouse, while OWS is helping to make the unions even more aggressive. She also stated that they were working on changing the structure of the union movement to fit the changing times. The OWS movement is ready to take action against the unions’ enemies; they will fulfill the actions that labor laws restrict unions from performing.

Hedging their bets, AFL/CIO President Richard Trukma says the top goal if Mr. Obama is reelected is to pass striker replacement reform. Since the 1981 PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike, union strikes lost effectiveness and have dropped dramatically. Much of this is the fault of the AFL/CIO. PATCO members voted overwhelmingly to strike the government in 1981. However, President Reagan fired all those who refused to return to work, and ordered the FAA to hire permanent replacements. Replacing strikers in this manner is not unlawful, but has always been considered a “nuclear option”, not to be used. Strikers were often fired, but were usually rehired with full seniority. What many people do not know is that then-president of the AFL/CIO Lane Kirkland did not support the striking workers. Upset that the controllers had not consulted him before striking, Kirkland privately ordered AFL/CIO unions not to get involved while publicly denounced Reagan’s strike-breaking strategy. Within a year, PATCO was decertified and its striking members were never rehired.

Bill Fletcher, Jr., from the Center for Labor Renewal, recently stated that they are feverishly working to win congressional support for striker replacement reform. Now that the unions have a shortened election cycle, they desperately need to reacquire the right to strike – their biggest strength and the biggest threat to business. IBT president Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. best expressed this thinking when he said that Labor needed to return to the days of his father, when they could “close the country down with a strike.”

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