Obama's Labor Problem: Union Scales Back Support for Democratic Party

AFL-CIO shifts support to thier Super PAC, instead of the Democratic Party

ByAmy Bingham
August 25, 2011, 7:17 PM

Aug. 29, 2011 -- As if dismal economic growth, high unemployment and impending natural disasters weren't enough to dampen President Obama's vacation, the nation's largest labor union has announced that it will scale back support of the Democratic Party for the 2012 elections.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said Thursday that the union will spend more of its money to "build our own structure" and give less money "to build structures for others."

In other words, instead of giving money to boost the Democratic Party as a whole, the union plans to build its own strategy to influence specific races and highlight particular issues beyond the election season.

"Contributing money to the party had value but it didn't leave anything enduring that was independent of the party," said AFL-CIO's political media outreach specialist Jeff Hauser. "We are much more interested in building a year-round, odd year and even year, every year political mobilization rather than gearing up ourselves six months [before the election] and relying on an external political operation."

President Obama's relationship with labor unions has been on the rocks after the president failed to achieve passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, or "card-check" bill, that would make it easier for workers to organize.

The Associated Press reports that about a dozen trade unions are boycotting the Democrat's 2012 convention because it is being held in North Carolina, a right-to-work state.

"There is broad frustration with the party and all elected officials, broad frustration with the lack of a union agenda," said Michael Monroe, chief of staff of the Building & Construction Trades Department of AFL-CIO. "People are looking for outlets to express that frustration."

The president's support of free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea was also unpopular with labor groups like the AFL-CIO, which contributed $1.6 million to Democratic campaigns in 2010 and $1.2 million during the past presidential election.

Hauser said there is "broad discontent within the labor movement" because Washington is preoccupied with cutting deficits instead of setting its sights on creating jobs.

"The number one issue in this country is by far the jobs crisis," he said. "We hope to encourage leaders to focus on the real issue, the jobs crisis, rather than focusing so much attention on long-run deficit issues."

The union's announcement comes on the heels of AFL-CIO's move to create their own Super PAC, which will allow the union to collect and spend unlimited funds. The union said the Super PAC is one aspect of AFL-CIO's strategy to build a year-round political operation.

Hauser said the new structure will increase AFL-CIO's ability to impact elections and strengthen the candidates it supports.

Robert Reich, who served as secretary of labor during the Clinton Administration, said labor union support has been pivotal to Democrats over the past 70 years.

"Labor unions have taken the lead in many key states, certainly key battle ground states, for more than a half a century," he said. "They are certainly very important in elections. Without them Democrats would be at a major disadvantage in terms of the ground war."

"Unionized workers are the ground troops of the Democratic party. They are critical for get-out-the-vote efforts," Reich added.

Thirty years ago, when a quarter of American workers were unionized, unions played an integral role in job creation policy making, Reich said.

"Everybody right now in America is talking about jobs and 30 years ago or 40 years ago there wasn't much of a difference between talking about jobs and talking about labor," he said.

But today when just 12 percent of workers carry a union card, union issues like collective bargaining rights and laws easing union organization are falling farther down on lawmakers' priority list.

"Democratic presidents and most Democrats in Congress don't make this the highest priority," Reich said.

But whatever qualms the unions have with Democrats, the party is far more receptive to union concerns than their GOP counterparts. The Republican Party tends to support right-to-work initatives that weaken union influence.

For example, a National Labor Relations Board case against Boeing has ignited a firestorm of discontent among Republicans. The board has charged Boeing with violating labor laws after the company shifted production of some of its new Dreamliner 787 airplane from Washington, a unionized state, to South Carolina, a right-to-work state.

Every GOP presidential candidate has condemned the NLRB for, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry put it, trying to "dictate to a private company, Boeing, where they can build a plant."

Perry said the board was stacked with "anti-business cronies" while fellow candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann said they were "anti-job people." Mitt Romney said the board's actions send "shock waves across the nation and, if allowed to stand, will result in American job losses."

"The Republicans are so much more deeply committed to weakening bargaining power," said Gary Burtless, a labor economist at the Brookings Institute.

"Republicans said the budget of the NLRB for the remainder of the fiscal year should be zero. If you're a union member that can't be good news," Burltess continued. "If you're a union you want every ounce of power that the federal government will bring to bear and for even-handedness in labor relations to be protected. You don't want it to be zeroed out."

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