- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2010

Labor’s high hopes for major gains under President Obama and a Democratic Congress have dimmed, raising fresh doubts about union leverage even in the best of political times.

Prospects for a health overhaul have faded. Even slimmer are the chances of achieving labor’s chief goal, passage of a bill making it easier for unions to organize workers. A bipartisan jobs bill passed this week by the Senate drew tepid praise from the AFL-CIO president, Richard Trumka, who called it a “Band-Aid on an amputated limb” - far short of what unions wanted.

This wasn’t what unions expected a year ago after spending more than $400 million to help elect Mr. Obama and increase the size of Democratic majorities in the Senate and House.

Leaders of labor’s largest federation will try to figure out how to refocus their political agenda when they begin their annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., on Monday.

Another setback came in January when two Senate Democrats joined Republicans in blocking the appointment of labor lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Mr. Becker has worked for the AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).



Republicans have said they fear Mr. Becker would push the board to require companies to recognize unions if they can get a simple majority of employees to sign union cards - the same “card check” measure that’s stalled in Congress.

Labor leaders were counting on Mr. Obama putting Mr. Becker in the post when Congress was out of session. They were disappointed when Mr. Obama said he wouldn’t do it anytime soon.

“Enough is enough,” Mr. Trumka said in an e-mail to labor activists. He urged union members to call the White House and “demand that President Obama fight Republican obstructionism” on Mr. Becker’s nomination.

Some labor experts say unions have come up flat in mounting an effective liberal response to “tea party” activists who helped Republican Scott Brown win the special Senate election in Washington to succeed Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, who died last year. An AFL-CIO poll showed that 49 percent of union households supported Mr. Brown.

“There’s been no indication that there’s muscle behind their money,” said Leon Fink, a labor historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “There was no equivalent mobilization for public works or for a progressive health care measure.”

Even more troubling for unions, their membership in the private sector fell 10 percent during Mr. Obama’s first year in office to a historic low of 7.2 percent. A poll this past week from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 41 percent of those surveyed have a favorable view of unions, compared with 58 percent in a similar survey in 2007.

“I think that everyone is frustrated literally, but it’s important to understand who we have to be frustrated with,” said United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard.

Mr. Gerard said unions are angry about Republican tactics they view as obstructionist and a few conservative Senate Democrats who are making it tough for Mr. Obama to push through his agenda. Mr. Gerard said that Democrats may not count on the usual support they expect from union members in this fall’s elections.

“If we don’t have clear progress and clear attempts at progress, we’re going to have a hard time motivating our folks,” he said.

AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale said union members have been more hopeful in recent days about Congress pushing some version of health care reform in the process known as reconciliation. They also believe Mr. Obama will direct more bailout money to community banks, infrastructure repair and development of green jobs. “One of the things we want to talk about is how we can build upon our existing grass-roots structure to make it bigger, more effective and get more results moving forward,” Mr. Vale said.

Unions have fared much better with Mr. Obama than under Republican President George W. Bush. Mr. Obama helped save thousands of union jobs through federal bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler and by propping up state governments through the stimulus bill. Also, SEIU’s president, Andy Stern, is one of the most frequent White House guests.

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