- - Tuesday, April 24, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

For the first time in a long time, labor will be a central topic in the presidential campaign.

Don’t get me wrong. As a political player, labor has consistently been engaged and that won’t change this time around, even if labor isn’t thrilled with the job the president and Democrats in Congress have done on jobs, labor-law reform or trade deals. As union leaders and members look at the alternatives, they see a rather clear choice.

What will be different this time around is the extent to which labor will be involved as a political issue.

For many years now, even as labor was spending millions of dollars and providing thousands of foot soldiers to work on behalf of endorsed (mostly Democratic) candidates, unions have been largely invisible as a campaign topic. The reason is simple: Labor was seen by many as irrelevant, as a dinosaur from another era.

Welcome to 2012, with labor back in the limelight.

For months, those in the Republican presidential field tried to outdo one another in accusing their rivals of being insufficiently anti-labor. Mitt Romney verged toward an “Are you now or have you ever been … ” tone as his aides combed Rick Santorum’s record for traces of sympathy for those subversive entities known as unions.

As the former Massachusetts governor argues that his business background will make him a better economic steward than President Obama, Mr. Romney will seek to tie “union bosses” to the administration, aiming to show that the president does the bidding of “big labor” to the detriment of the economy.

For his part, Mr. Obama will cite several factors, including Mr. Romney’s opposition to bailing out the auto industry and his several elitism-tinged gaffes, to show that his rival is out of touch with ordinary working people.

The heretofore nearly anonymous National Labor Relations Board has sent various Republican candidates and legislators into fits of apoplexy as they liken its ruling to dictates from the old Soviet leadership while calling for its defunding. Much of their fury resulted from the NLRB’s ruling that, in moving production work to the right-to-work state of South Carolina, Boeing improperly penalized its Machinists-represented workforce in Seattle for the union’s propensity to go on strike.

Do not be surprised if Mr. Romney warns not only of the danger of more Supreme Court nominees chosen by Mr. Obama, but of NLRB nominees as well.

The actions by mostly Republican governors and legislators in dozens of states, particularly battleground states in the industrial heartland, also will be hot-button issues. Those Republican leaders argued that they were merely trying to balance budgets and reduce tax burdens when they sought to strip collective-bargaining rights from public employees or impose right-to-work laws. Labor and its allies countered that these leaders were using the recession as a pretext to attack organized labor.

The political impact of these actions and efforts is uncertain - just look at Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich was rebuffed by his electorate; at Indiana, where Gov. Mitch Daniels succeeded; and Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker’s stay in office is uncertain. But what is clear is that their actions and those elsewhere in the country will be heatedly debated during the campaign.

More broadly, Republicans will accuse unions of harming job creation, bankrupting local and state governments, and being an arm of the Democratic Party. For their part, Democrats will contend that the Republicans ignore the plight of workers and have become the voice of corporations and the wealthy.

And so, on a variety of fronts, labor will be front-and-center in the 2012 election season.

Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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