ORLANDO, FLA. — After President Obama earlier this week supported the mass firing of 93 teachers and other staff at the troubled Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, the AFL-CIO executive council, already meeting in Orlando, fired off an unusually harsh resolution.
Labor leaders said they were “appalled” by the “unacceptable” and “disappointing” presidential statements, especially since the local superintendent fired the teachers rather than negotiate over how to continue the recent academic improvement at the working-class community’s school.
It was a mini-PATCO moment – echoing faintly President Reagan’s decision to fire striking air traffic controllers — in the increasingly frayed relations between organized labor and a president who has at times seemed distant from the labor movement, yet at other times seemed more pro-union than any president in many decades.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said Obama’s comment was “a bad call” based on “wrong facts,” but that it happened at all caused him “concern, deep concern.”
Union reaction to the administration is increasingly ambivalent. Partly it reflects frustration – mainly in not getting adequate legislation passed to deal with the multiple crises of working Americans (jobs, incomes, health care, worker rights and more).
But that unease is tempered by satisfaction – mainly in administrative actions.
This complex relationship was on display with two speeches to the executive council – both somewhat defensive, if not apologetic. Vice-president Joe Biden was received lukewarmly with pointed questions about broad administration policy afterwards. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis received a much more enthusiastic reception, partly as a result of her efforts to enforce existing laws better and to develop more pro-worker regulations (such as on occupational safety and health).
Labor leaders know their frustration primarily stems from Republican obstruction, right-wing demagoguery, and the anti-democratic rules of the Senate. (Asked if the theoretically bipartisan labor movement would endorse any Republicans this year, Trumka said, “We’re hoping. None come to mind at this point.”)
But the unreliability of a significant bloc of conservative Democrats slowed or stopped progress even when the Democrats could claim the magic number – 60 – in the Senate. In a plan first hatched by a group of big unions from the AFL-CIO and Change to Win several weeks ago, organized labor – from the state federation to the AFL-CIO threw its support behind Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a primary challenge against Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democratic nemesis of unions. Communications Workers, Service Employees (SEIU), AFSCME (public workers), and the Steelworkers each pledged $1 million for his campaign.
Lincoln, known as the Senator from Wal-Mart, rejected labor law reform, opposed the public option in health care reform, and refused to vote for cloture on the appointment of labor lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Halter is no labor tribune: he says he doesn’t support the original labor law reform involving majority sign-up, but leans to a compromise that would hold NLRB representation elections more quickly.
But “maybe something like this will send a message” to other Democrats, says AFSCME president Gerald McEntee. “I think it does represent a new strategy. We’re going to take into consideration records on issues facing the people. There’s always the danger [of losing a Democratic seat] – we do want to support Democrats – but when people are as recalcitrant as this, you have to do something or you’re not a labor movement.”
There are other ways to deliver the same message. McEntee says the AFL-CIO coordinated political program will be even bigger this year than in the 2008 presidential election (partly because it will be necessary to spend heavily in some normally blue states like California and Illinois to erect a firewall protecting vulnerable Democratic seats). But AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman says that despite that effort many Democrats may not get a labor endorsement or get an endorsement with no money. “Those who’ve not proven themselves will not get our support,” she says.
Union leaders – and likely many members and other workers – are upset with a variety of Obama policy choices, such as dropping the public option and imposing an excise tax on high-cost health insurance policies (and were disappointed even with the improvements Trumka and other negotiated) or going easy on the big banks. (As blogger Michael Whitney noted, there were no mass firings of bankers.)
But people’s biggest frustration, especially among the broader base of Obama voters, is that so little is getting accomplished and that – even if Republicans and blue dogs and filibusters are largely at fault – that Obama doesn’t seem to be fighting hard enough. “People get demoralized when they don’t have a vehicle to fight back,” Ackerman says. Or when their representatives don’t fight, adds UNITE HERE (hotel and restaurant workers) president John Wilhelm . “There’s no fight visible to the average worker,” he says.
Demoralization will make it harder to mobilize the Obama voters this fall, even though the union political operation is much more effective than in 1994, when union member and working class disillusionment with Bill Clinton’s NAFTA deal and his health insurance reform failure helped Republicans take control of the House. Yet Wilhelm says, “It will be extremely tough. Our folks are seriously disappointed not to see significant changes since the Democrats took control. That was the promise. Especially the response to the job problem has been so anemic….Our members may not vote for reactionaries, but they may not vote.”
“I think Rich Trumka is right,” Wilhelm continues. “The conversation has to be about jobs.” And the plan this year, far more than ever, McEntee says, is to lead into the election battle with an issues fight over job creation, including taxing the financial services industry both to pay for reconstructing the jobs and economy its executives destroyed and to discourage speculation over investment in the future.
Winning that fight means pushing the president and many Democratic lawmakers and officials beyond where they want to go as well as defeating Republicans. At a time when even many union members are disillusioned, and right-wing scare tactics are powerful, the political challenge for organized labor this year is extraordinary. Labor’s ambivalence about Obama is understandable, but if he listened more closely, Obama would still find that organized workers are still among his best friends. Even more than two years ago, he needs them, and they need him – to be a fighter for jobs and their futures.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.