In the early days of the Obama administration, organized labor had grand visions of pushing through a sweeping agenda that would help boost sagging membership and help revive union strength.
Now labor faces this reality: Public employee unions are in a drawn-out fight for their very survival in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states where GOP lawmakers have curbed collective bargaining rights.
Also, many union leaders are grousing that the president they worked so hard to elect has not focused enough on job creation and other bold plans to get their members back to work.
“Obama campaigned big, but he’s governing small,” said Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
Labor remains a core Democratic constituency and union leaders will stand with Obama in Detroit this Labor Day, where he will address thousands of rank-and-file members during the city’s annual parade today.
But at the same time, unions have begun shifting money and resources out of Democratic congressional campaigns and back to the states in a furious effort to reverse or limit GOP measures that could wipe out union rolls.
The AFL-CIO’s president, Richard Trumka, says it’s part of a new strategy for labor to build an independent voice separate from the Democratic Party.
Union donations to federal candidates at the beginning of this year were down about 40 percent compared with the same period in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Last month, a dozen trade unions said they would boycott next year’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., over frustration on the economy and to protest the event’s location in a right-to-work state.
“The pendulum has swung a long way,” said Ross Eisenbrey, a vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute. “In the next year, I think all unions can really hope for is to keep more bad things from happening and to get as much of a jobs program enacted as possible.”
Unions fell short last month in their recall campaign to wrest control of the Wisconsin Senate from Republicans. That fight was a consequence of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public-employee unions as a part of a cost-cutting effort. Now they are spending millions more in Ohio, where they hope to pass a statewide referendum in November that would repeal a similar measure limiting union rights.
It’s a far cry from the early optimism unions had after Obama came into office. Back then, unions hoped a Democratic-controlled Congress would pass legislation to make it easier for unions to organize workers. But business groups fought that proposal hard, and it never came to a vote.
Union leaders grew more disappointed when the president’s health care overhaul didn’t include a government-run insurance option. Then Obama agreed to extend President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy.
Obama came out in favor of trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that most unions say will cost American jobs. Despite campaigning in favor of raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour, Obama hasn’t touched the issue since taking office.