Labor Unions May Have To Abandon Obama to Beat Corporate America

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.

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.

There are only two tools in the union negotiation toolbox: strike and solidarity. These are the forces that big corporations fear, not Capitol Hill deal-makers. People join the labor movement out of a desire to feel a sense of dignity and respect on the job. They gain that sense of dignity by standing up for their rights. They form bonds of trust, dedication and solidarity that can become stronger even in defeat. Workers will always be willing to get back up and fight again if their fellow workers fight with them. All the political favors in the world won't help workers if labor leaders don't stand up and fight.

Richard Trumka knows this and has chosen a bold, aggressive approach for organized labor. But Trumka is just one leader, and the economic battle is just beginning. Make no mistake: Wall Street is taking aggressive steps to wipe out the labor movement entirely, and Wall Street has many friends within the administration receptive to this message. If unions bow to those in the White House that want labor to remain silent amid this assault, the damage to the labor movement will be more severe and long-lasting than the fallout from taking on the administration. Workers might not win in their political battles today, but the real fights don't have to take place in Washington, D.C.—they're in mines, fields and offices all over the country.


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