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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.

As president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka is emerging as the voice of an increasingly irrelevant labor movement. As unionized work sinks to only 7 percent of the private sector, the labor movement is losing its influence within the Democratic Party. To revitalize labor, Trumka must not only challenge Democratic leaders, but wage political battles outside the bounds of party politics by bringing labor back to its working-class activist roots.

The failure of President Barack Obama to make a major push on the Employee Free Choice Act -- let alone give even a single speech dedicated to the topic -- is a telling sign of organized labor's declining momentum inside the Beltway. As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson noted in February, "For American labor, year one of Barack Obama's presidency has been close to an unmitigated disaster." Labor ranks so low on the president's list of priorities that a new generation of Obama activists is now planning for a political environment altogether devoid of the labor movement.  

The Obama administration demonstrated a clear lack of concern for labor when it allowed nominations to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to be ignored in Congress for a full 14 months. The vacant seats on NLRB prevented the panel from issuing any decisions over this 14-month period, meaning there was no functioning court to protect unions from the illegal practices of big corporations. Needless to say, this was a big problem for both labor and the country at large—imagine the president allowing a federal circuit court to sit inactive for more than a year.

Most of the direct blame for the delay rests on the shoulders of Republican senators. But Obama's timid negotiations with conservatives allowed the problem to fester. In March 2009, Obama appointed former union lawyer Craig Becker to the NLRB, but the nomination didn't clear a Senate Committee until October of that year. Republicans then filibustered Becker's nomination, ultimately killing it in the Senate by Christmas. Organized labor responded by pushing for Obama to give Becker a recess appointment in February, which would have filled the NRLB seat without subjecting it to filibuster in the Senate. Obama's initial response was a refusal: he wanted instead to cut a backroom deal with Senate Republicans in an effort to attain some variety of Obama's ever-elusive Holy Grail of public policy goals, bipartisanship.

After Obama's rejection, labor had two options. It could play nice with the administration and hope to be rewarded for their loyalty, or it could take a stand and criticize the White House for cutting this backroom deal. Trumka choose the latter. He blasted the secret deal with the Senate GOP as one that "left working people out in the cold." He urged union members to bombard the White House with phone calls in protest – the first time the AFL-CIO had asked workers to do this during the Obama presidency.

It worked. As a result of the pressure the AFL-CIO put on the White House, Obama was forced to grant Becker a recess appointment during the next recess in March. Trumka risked a lot, including much-coveted access to the White House, in order to pressure Obama on this issue. But the White House feared so open a denouncement from labor, and it folded quickly, appointing Becker as soon as it could.

When labor suffered a massive loss on the Employee Free Choice Act this year, Trumka learned an important lesson. Obama spent most of his first year in office pretending EFCA did not exist, mentioning the bill only in occasional throw-away lines when he appeared before labor-dominated audiences. It was never an issue he even pretended to put political capital behind. But while labor fought for EFCA alone, labor leaders did not publicly criticize the White House for failing to push their top legislative priority.