- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2010


If the Democrats intend to win elections in 2010 and 2012, it’s looking more and more as if they will start with a major disadvantage — waning enthusiasm from the party’s most significant ally: The labor movement.

The risk that labor will cool its political jets — not switch sides, but reduce its heretofore all-out efforts for Democrats — is moving from an outside possibility to a realistic scenario.

As an insider at a large union close to the White House told me a few days ago, her union is highly disappointed with the Democrats in Washington, is increasingly “weary” of their failure to deliver on key issues — and will hold those responsible accountable.

How damaging would a political pullback by labor be? If labor is anything less than fully engaged, Democrats stand a 50-50 chance, or greater, of losing any given competitive election that develops over the next couple of rounds, whether for the House, Senate or White House. As for the inherently difficult races — forget it. (Hello, Evan Bayh.)

Why is labor disenchanted, just a year after helping usher in Democratic dominance throughout the nation’s capital?

For months, labor’s frustration has mounted over the languishing of its top priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, which Sen. Barack Obama co-sponsored, candidate Obama promised would become law, but President Obama has kept at arm’s length. White House policies on Mexican trucks rankled Teamster leader James P. Hoffa, whose work securing blue-collar votes in Ohio and Pennsylvania helped elect this president. More broadly, union folks have been wondering what they’re getting for their biggest election effort ever — where are the jobs, labor-law reform and renegotiated trade deals?

Compounding matters recently, we saw the political capital — and public good will — labor had to expend fighting the administration’s plan to tax union health plans. Some union leaders speak openly of a “betrayal” on this issue.

And now, adding salt to the wounds, it is faced with Republican criticism the White House has gone soft on supporting its own pro-union nominees to agencies like the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Other administration decisions, as much as labor disliked them, seemed like political or economic calculations. But this one appears, to many trade unionists, like something worse: Political timidity or even cowardice.

New AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a tough-minded former coal miner, is in no mood to play nice — or play along. Barely had the news surfaced of Mr. Obama’s retreat on filling NLRB vacancies than Mr. Trumka urged workers to flood the White House with complaints.

Why does all this matter? Remove the one-quarter of the vote consistently generated by union households in recent federal elections — which has gone 3-1 for labor-endorsed candidates — and those elections shift from the Democratic column to too close to call. And it’s actually more significant than that; beyond its millions of votes, labor brings huge campaign coffers, thousands of energetic volunteers and political expertise that help spread the party’s message, delivering additional voters as well.

This means that even a slight decrease of enthusiasm among labor’s ranks — rank-and-file members as much as union leaders — could have huge implications for 2010 and beyond.

While Democrats could still turn things around, I’ve seen the changing mindset within labor’s ranks. After I wrote in this space in December that labor risked being taken for granted by invariably backing Democrats, and that the GOP was missing a chance to make inroads by being reflexively hostile to unions, I waited for labor to set me straight. Instead, among the reactions I received was that the ideas were “spot on.”

When I told the Philadelphia AFL-CIO Annual Leadership Conference in Atlantic City last month that labor’s political strategy — serving as logistical soldiers for Democratic candidates instead of focusing the electorate’s attention on labor’s agenda — was contributing to its woes, I expected pushback. Instead, I saw nodding heads.

Other challenges facing the majority, such as that posed by the “tea party” movement, get far more attention. But they’re less significant, being orchestrated by forces predictably hostile to White House policies. Not so with the rising dissension within labor. And it’s the doing of an administration and a Congress that — whether they realize it or not — risk being engulfed by what they’re setting in motion.

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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