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Labor Unions May Have To Abandon Obama to Beat Corporate America

Labor unions need to start fighting their battles in the workplace, not on Capitol Hill.

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Instead, union leadership played an inside game with Obama, hoping that by cooperating with the White House on health care and other issues, labor would eventually get the support for EFCA it wanted. But despite this cooperation on Obama's signature legislative efforts, EFCA was never scheduled for a Congressional vote, and died with barely a whimper.

In an August interview with Politico, Trumka criticized labor leaders, saying they hadn't been nearly aggressive enough with Democrats on the issue. Trumka refused to let the mistake be repeated. He put Democrats who blocked EFCA on notice when the AFL-CIO backed a primary challenger, Lt. Governor Bill Halter, D-Arkansas, against the incumbent Senator Blanche Lincoln. And whatever the results of the Arkansas primary,
Lincoln
has moved substantially to the left following the challenge, penning strong financial reform legislation cracking down on derivatives, the financial instruments that sunk AIG. Labor, in short, has already helped secure better financial reform by refusing to play nice.

Labor is at a crossroads. Many in the movement fear denouncing the White House more openly and upsetting key relationships with the White House. While union support was critical to Obama's election, everyone who watched Obama's campaign contributions in 2008 knows that corporate backers played a tremendous role in getting Obama into office. Last year, the Obama campaign's own national finance director, Penny Pritzker, wrote the president a public letter urging him to kill the Employee Free Choice Act.

If labor takes a more critical stance against the administration, it could force Obama to rely more heavily on his corporate backers and set unions back even further. Labor has plenty of enemies within the Democratic Party that would like to push the unionzed percentage of the workforce down from 7 percent all the way to zero. Obama has already made overtures to these factions, most notably when he applauded the mass firing of union teachers at a school in
Rhode Island
.  

So labor really could pay a heavy political price for getting tough. But going bold and getting wiped out isn't something union workers should fear. The labor movement has been wiped out many times in this country's history with bullets. But each time, it has gone down fighting and risen up again.

A third-generation union miner, Trumka grew up hearing tales of the fabled battle of Blair Mountain. In 1921, union miners went on strike throughout
southern West Virginia , shutting down the coal industry. The coal companies went to war, and over 100 miners were killed at
Blair Mountain, with the federal government even sending in airplanes to bomb union worker encampments.

The battle of Blair Mountain was a heavy blow to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in
West Virginia
, but over time, it proved to be a pyrrhic victory. As a result of the struggle, the UMWA strengthened its resolve -- workers knew they couldn't cut any deals with the boss, so they focused on organizing. It took years, but once the Wagner Act passed in 1936, the UMWA organized the entire coal industry workforce -- hundreds of thousands of miners. It created an industry-wide contract that prevented mine owners from pitting one mine against another.

If bullets couldn't kill organized labor, politics can't either. The most serious threat to the labor movement is a leadership that insists on self-defeating compromises rather than strong demands. This was exactly how labor officials were acting when Trumka came into the labor movement in the early 1980s.

Trumka was elected president of the UMWA in 1982, and made the union such a force to be reckoned with that anti-worker forces called in a bomb threat to his wedding. In 1989, he led the successful nine-month strike against Pittston Coal Group for cutting off medical benefits to pensioners and the disabled. The long strike led the UMWA to the brink of bankruptcy, and it was fined nearly $64 million during the strike. But the workers stood firm, and the Pittston Strike became a rallying cry against the tide of union busting that had swept the nation during the Reagan era. A full 37,000 miners went out on wildcat strikes in solidarity with the Pittston strikers.