Not All Labor Leaders Happy With AFL-CIO’s Obama Endorsement

Mike Elk

Note: A Democracy Now! segment featuring Mike Elk discussing this story is below.

Last May, AFL-CIO President Trumka declared labor’s political independence by pledging to use the power of Super PACS to reach out to nonunion voters and build labor’s own political organization and message outside of the Democratic Party. Yesterday, the leaders of the labor federation unanimously endorsed President Obama for re-election, saying he has moved aggressively to protect workers’ rights, pay and health and safety on the job.” (See David Moberg’s story here.)

There’s not a lot of choice here, that’s the sad part of this,” says Matt McKinnon, political and legislative director of the Machinists union (IAM), which is affiliated with AFL-CIO and endorsed the president earlier this year. He’s been a disappointment in several areas, but he came through with some decent appointees.”

The expected endorsement represents the reality that organized labor leaders still feel trapped in a two-party system, with a not-always labor-friendly Democratic Party on one side and a downright hostile Republican Party on the other. This tension continues despite the endorsement, as witnessed by the fact that the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO is continuing its boycott of the Democratic National Convention. The boycott was called because the DNC is being held this September in largely nonunion facilities in one of the most poorly unionized states in the country: North Carolina.

A few labor leaders are complaining that the way the AFL-CIO handled the endorsement does not represent a new trend in political independence” for the labor movement, but rather a return to business as usual. The endorsement came relatively early — before the Republican primary season has even ended and nearly six months before the DNC in Charlotte. (It endorsed Obama for election in June 2008, but endorsed John Kerry in February 2004.)

In my opinion, the endorsement hurts organized labor’s ability to have leverage over Obama’s actions during the remainder of his first term. A cautionary tale, in my view, is how a few days after the Communications Workers of America (CWA) endorsed President Obama for re-election, the president signed a bill funding the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that, according to CWA President Larry Cohen, makes the organizing rights of airline and rail workers worse than it’s ever been.”

Anybody who negotiates a contract knows that you start off with an ultimate idea of what you want and you don’t stop negotiating till the very end. I don’t get why they are doing this so early,” says South Carolina AFL-CIO President Donna Dewitt, who is not in favor of endorsing Obama. Of all things the labor movement should know, it’s how to negotiate. I don’t think they know how to negotiate anymore.” (Editor’s note: See correction and appended statement from DeWitt below.)

In the offical endorsement statement, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said that Obama has moved aggressively to protect workers’ rights,” but the statement glosses over the fact that Obama has often ignored, blocked or stymied key workers’ rights and health and safety regulations.

In the last month alone, Obama has pushed increasing federal workers’ pension contributions (in his proposed 2013 budget). Last month also marked the one-year anniversary of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) delaying publishing OSHA rules that would prevent workers’ exposure to cancer causing silicia dust. Typically, the OMB is supposed to review rules for only 90 days, but under industry pressure the White House has reportedly prevented the rules from being published. Acoording to a study by Public Citizen, 60 workers’ lives could have been saved if the White House had immediately moved to implement stronger silicia regulations.

And what has President Obama done to help American workers organize themselves into unions, or protect the collective bargaining rights they currently enjoy? From where I stand, the short answer is not much.

While the president’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have helped pass several pro-labor rules, those rules are by no means permanent. (They could be changed by a future NLRB board that is dominated by anti-union appointees.) The FAA budget bill referred to above, though, marks the only federal legislation that Obama has signed that (negatively) affects the ability of organized labor to collectively bargain.

Remember the Employee Free Choice Act, the great legislative hope of the labor movement as President Obama came into office? He allowed the bill, which would have made it easier for all workers to unionize by allowing them to bypass secret ballot election if they so choosed, to die entirely. As president, Obama publicly distanced himself from labor law reform — he didn’t give a single major speech on the subject of workers’ rights, as opposed to immigration and climate change. Likewise, as I documented, Obama’s most recent State of the Union address did not mention the unprecedented attacks on workers’ rights at the state level, in places like Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.

Indeed, United Electrical Workers union Political Director Chris Townsend argues that the most high-profile comments the Obama administration has made regarding labor law have been speeches attacking teachers unions. Townsend points to a speech by Obama at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in March of 2009 calling on teacher unions to allow more flexibility in their contracts; he also points to the president’s remarks endorsing the mass firing of unionized teachers in Central Falls, R.I., in March 2010

Townsend, whose union is not endorsing Obama for re-election, worries that by glossing over Obama’s deficiencies, the federation’s unions hurt their credibility with their own members. (Full disclosure: My father works for the UE, and I once briefly worked for the union.)

Why should union leaders — from shop stewards right up the national union president —why should we sacrifice our hard-earned credibility with our members for the sake of some politician? Do they sacrifice any of their precious credibility for us, in our battles with the bosses? Rarely, if at all, and only at election time,” Townsend says. The membership knows this, and there’s no point in trying to conceal it or gloss over it with good-news-only press releases. It’s bad enough we are locked in this two party trap. We don’t have to make it all worse by not leveling with the members about what we are really facing.”

Some argue that the attacks supported by GOP presidential candidates (e.g., a national right-to-work law) are so extreme that organized labor should endorse any Democrat to ward off a Republican in office.

Dewitt, from South Carolina, where Governor Nikki Halley has said publicly that unions are not needed, not wanted and not welcome in the state of South Carolina,” disagrees with this approach. I run one of the only state federations that did not endorse our Democratic nominee for governor last time around,” says Dewitt. He was a nice guy, but he did not know how to say the word — union.” Dewitt says that unions also hurt their credibility with their members when they go all out for Democrats who are lukewarm at best in their support for organized labor. 

I spend half of my time trying to talk to membership upset with their international. We have to act like labor leaders and not corporate labor leaders,” Dewitt says. We don’t have strong labor leaders. They are always making a deal on something. I don’t know how we keep [union members] in places like South Carolina if we don’t truly represent them.” 

The AFL-CIO has occasionally taken a more confrontational approach with Democrats in recent years. In 2010, organized labor poured millions of dollars into a primary challenge to Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln — she ended up winning the primary, but losing the general election to a Republican. In a recent interview with In These Times, however, Trumka said I don’t have any plans right now” to primary Democrats in Congress who have been unfriendly toward labor.

The AFL-CIO just kicks that can down the road again even as most unions face relentless assaults on wages, pensions and healthcare,” says railroad worker Jonathan Flanders of Troy, N.Y., a member of the IAM. The assaults will not end with Obama’s re-election, and we’ll find his administration doing little to stop them, outside of occasional lip service.”

To unionists like Flanders, fed up with what organized labor is getting from Democrats these days, the project of getting political representation of the working class in its own party still lies ahead.”

The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the South Carolina AFL-CIO did not endorse President Obama for re-election. In fact, state-level AFL-CIO affiliates do not endorse presidential candidates. Dewitt was speaking on her own behalf. We regret the error. 

Update (March 15): After this story was published yesterday, South Carolina AFL-CIO President Donna Dewitt told me she received a call from a representative of the AFL-CIO displeased with her disagreement about the endorsement. She e-mailed me the following statement to clarify her position on the matter:

I understand that [the AFL-CIO’s presidential endorsement is made] by the national leaders through a deliberative process, just as the state federations conduct endorsement meetings for the purpose of receiving and acting on recommendations of endorsement for State and U.S. representatives from their affiliated union locals and bodies within their state. I spoke from a personal perspective, but I need to be clear that I reflect the concerns of the South Carolina AFL-CIO Officers and Executive Board, who listen to their membership and entrust me to speak on their behalf. We know the struggles that all of our states are facing because we have been confronted with these struggles for centuries.

Throughout my 16-year tenure I have received support and resources from the AFL-CIO staff and I have strived to comply with all of the AFL-CIO programs in South Carolina. The person who contacted me from the AFL-CIO implied they don’t expect this from a leader that receives support, including financial support, from the national AFL-CIO. 

My remarks in the article reflect my personal encounters with rank-and-file union members. Many of them fear speaking out on key decisions that are made by their international leaders for fear of retribution. They are proud union members who want a voice in their leaders that reflects their pride in being a union member first. The demise of unions may simply be that union leaders have placed their priorities on electing politicians that can still count- and our numbers don’t scare them.

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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