Unions dream big for Obama’s 2nd term

Michigan speech lifted hopes

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When President Obama spoke out forcefully against Michigan’s right-to-work law, it was a rare example of the president putting on public display his support of organized labor.

“What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money,” Mr. Obama told union workers, reciting labor’s talking points as faithfully as if his speech had been written by the United Auto Workers.

Big Labor hopes it’s a sign that Mr. Obama will step into the fray on behalf of union workers more openly during his second term, whether it’s stopping an expansion of right-to-work laws in states or working toward labor’s bigger dream of approving “card check,” which is federal legislation that would make it much easier for nonunion workplaces to organize.

“I am very confident that in his second term he will speak out a lot more forcefully on any number of issues,” said Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the Maryland and D.C. chapter of the AFL-CIO. “I would encourage the president to simply speak out more, use the bully pulpit of his office and be even more supportive when workers are actually engaging in those struggles.”

But right-to-work advocates expect Mr. Obama to keep pushing his pro-union agenda largely under the radar, through agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Labor.

“The president's labor board, the NLRB, is working pretty darned hard to overturn 60 or 70 years of precedent on a whole lot of issues,” said Fred Wszolek, spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute, a Washington-based group allied with business. “These guys are putting their thumb on the scale on the side of labor every chance they get. They can make new rules anytime they want.”

The NLRB came under fire in the presidential campaign from Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who accused Mr. Obama of appointing “labor stooges on the NLRB to pursue a political-payback strategy.” Mr. Romney cited the NLRB’s lawsuit in 2011 accusing Boeing Co. of unfair labor practices after the Seattle-based aircraft manufacturer built a production facility in South Carolina, a right-to-work state. The agency withdrew its complaint after Boeing and its machinists union agreed to a contract that included assurances of assembling a 737 jet in Washington state.

A report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Dec. 13 said the NLRB under the Obama administration “appears to be sacrificing fairness to job creators in order to promote pro-union policies.” Among other actions, the report highlighted the Boeing case and the agency’s decision in August 2011 to sanction “micro-unions,” which made it easier for unions to shrink the size of bargaining units at companies where they do not necessarily have workers’ majority support.

“The NLRB’s rulemakings exceed legislative authority,” the committee’s report concluded.

Right-to-work advocates are even more concerned about the NLRB’s plans because Mr. Obama will be appointing a member to replace Republican appointee Brian Hayes, whose term expired Dec. 16. With the president’s selection, the agency will have an all-Democrat board.

The composition of the NLRB’s board is also under a court challenge by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Senate Republicans and others because of Mr. Obama’s recess appointments of three board members in January 2011. The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard oral arguments Dec. 18 on whether Mr. Obama was within his legal rights when he appointed Sharon Block, Terence Flynn and Richard Griffin.

The administration said the Senate was in pro forma session, with senators gaveling in and out of session every three days. Opponents of the NLRB appointments said the Senate was in session at the time and that Mr. Obama exceeded his authority.

A spokesman for the White House who handles labor issues declined to comment on the House committee’s report and wouldn’t discuss Mr. Obama’s plans for labor initiatives in his second term. But AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka promised just before the Nov. 6 election that card-check legislation would be approved if Mr. Obama won re-election.

“You’ll see it,” Mr. Trumka told The Atlantic. “That’s within the next term.”

Also within the next term could be a battle between the White House and unions over the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which Mr. Trumka wants to be built. The administration, mindful of objections from environmentalists, has delayed a decision.

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