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.
With the House in Republican control for the next two years, Mr. Trumka indicated that unions will push aggressively for Democrats to win back the chamber in 2014 and then to pursue card-check legislation in Mr. Obama's final two years in office. But Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said Big Labor and its allies think they could achieve the same goal administratively through an NLRB ruling.
"Even during the card-check fight when it was a legitimate threat, back prior to 2010, folks at the NLRB and the intellectual class said the NLRB had all the authority they needed to do it administratively as a remedy," said Mr. Mix, whose organization is dedicated to combating "compulsory unionism abuses," according to its website. He said the risk of such an agency ruling is "theoretical at this point."
Mr. Mix said he expects the president to be "more engaged" with labor's efforts to fight right-to-work legislation at the state level, with potential battles in the next three years in states such as Missouri, Kentucky, Montana, Alaska and Pennsylvania. He said Mr. Obama's vocal stance in Michigan was a stark contrast to his muted response in 2010 to Wisconsin's effort to roll back collective-bargaining rights of public employees.
"If you recall Wisconsin, when he was still looking forward to re-election, he kind of decided to take a powder on that battle," Mr. Mix said. "Now he's safely elected. I suspect we'll see more activism by this president on these issues."
Labor leaders say the onus is on them to work harder at the grass-roots level to reverse setbacks for Big Labor, and they are confident that Mr. Obama has their backs.
"The challenge is on us to be more aggressive working with our allies in the community-based organizations, faith organizations to spread the message that workers' rights are human rights," said Mr. Mason of the Maryland and D.C. AFL-CIO. "We have to capitalize on what was demonstrated in the election on Nov. 6. That election showed the best of the American people. They were not bound by the rhetoric of anti-women, anti-minority, anti-worker leaders out there. They went in, and they voted for basic American values, that I am my brother and my sister's keeper."
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