Under President Obama, federal agencies are doling out tens of millions of dollars to one of the Democratic Party’s most essential constituencies: big labor.
The grants range from safety training to union membership recruitment to whipping up support for the president’s signature program called Obamacare, a Washington Times review of federal contracting records shows.
Last week, for example, the Department of Energy awarded a $900,000-plus grant for the development of a safety regimen for workers facing hazardous duties in energy and waste jobs. It didn’t go to a safety firm or training school but rather to a labor union: Akron International Chemical Workers Union. And the local Democratic congressman in Ohio got to score some political points with his blue-collar constituents by announcing it.
“It’s clearly an insight into how this president and his administration have used taxpayer funds to accomplish political purposes,” said Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government. “Congress needs to look at this, and dig out these grants specifically given to unions and eliminate them.”
(Corrected paragraph:) In President George W. Bush’s tenure, the federal government awarded about $29 million in grants to two of the largest groups representing big labor, the AFL-CIO and SEIU. In contrast, Mr. Obama has thus far awarded at least $53 million to these two groups — 83 percent more than Mr. Bush’s entire tenure.
“I’m utterly unsurprised federal grant-making to unions has increased under Obama. This administration has a way of rewarding their friends and harming their enemies,” said Doug Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and now president of the American Action Forum, a center-right policy institute.
Two years ago, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO was awarded $593,956 by the Department of Heath and Human Services to go door to door and use social media to recruit low-income Latinos to sign up for the president’s signature health care law. The local San Jose chapter of the SEIU was given $1 million to do the same thing but to focus on uninsured Asians and Pacific Islanders within their union. Its Los Angeles branch was given $500,000 to target multiracial populations speaking Tagalog, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Japanese, Laotian, Cambodian, Hmong and Vietnamese.
Last year the Illinois affiliate of the AFL-CIO was awarded $400,000 for outreach to “promote best practices in response to plant closings and mass layoffs” within the state by the Department of Labor. And, since 2011, the Idaho affiliate has been given more than $300,000 to monitor pending or actual closures of plants and potential affected employees and “assist in the collection of information regarding specific groups of dislocated workers.”
Mr. Manning said grants given to unions to bolster Obamacare enrollment or to further recruitment in their own ranks should be first on the list.
“Some of these grants are just so obviously political — this administration has utilized that capacity to its fullest,” he said.
Mr. Obama, who is ideologically in line with collective bargaining and big labor ideals, has used his tenure to appoint like-minded individuals to the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board, among other federal agency posts, who in turn use their positions to give grants and push pro-labor initiatives.
“The biggest single thing the president has done is make labor-friendly appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and various positions within the Department of Labor,” said Ruth Milkman, a City University of New York sociologist specializing in labor issues. “The president has revived a long historical tradition of appointing people to these positions who are supportive of labor relations. Under Reagan and Bush, there were people who didn’t believe in collective bargaining in those positions, which made it difficult to pass initiatives that benefit ordinary workers.”
Mr. Holtz-Eakin agrees the biggest change benefiting labor has been through presidential appointments. Mr. Obama has pushed the NLRB so far left, negotiations are now made at “the five-yard line,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said.
Most recently the NLRB ruled a contractor can be liable for the labor violations of a subcontractor, reversing decades of precedent at the board and infuriating free market conservatives and business.
In addition to making pro-labor appointments within the federal government, Mr. Obama has used executive actions to push union-supported positions, such as making more salaried workers eligible for overtime pay, requiring federal contractors to provide paid leave and using project labor agreements — which gives unions monopoly bargaining power for all workers, not just unionized ones — for federal construction projects.
“President Obama has made work-family issues a high priority, expanding paid leave through a number of executive orders for federal workers,” said Ms. Milkman. “There’s a lot of energy being put into these issues, and the Labor Department has been giving grants to experiment with this and support research on it. In addition, he has beefed up enforcement of basic labor standards like the minimum wage and overtime laws. These efforts benefit working people, so he deserves a lot of credit for them.”
And there’s little doubt the unions themselves take credit for helping to elect Mr. Obama in the first place.
During Mr. Obama’s first run for the presidency, Andy Stern, the president of SEIU, told the Las Vegas Sun: “We spent a fortune to elect Barack Obama — $60.7 million to be exact — and we’re proud of it.”
The 2 million-member union said its workers “knocked on 1.87 million doors, made 4.4 million phone calls and sent more than 2.5 million pieces of mail in support of Obama.” It dispatched SEIU leaders to seven states in the final weekend before the election to get out the vote for Mr. Obama and other Democrats.
Moreover, in 2012, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said without his and other unions’ help, Mr. Obama would’ve never won Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada and their combined 34 electoral votes. The federation’s 56 unions contacted 800,000 voters in Ohio alone and claimed 10.7 million door knocks and phone calls nationwide.
“We did deliver those states,” Mr. Trumka said. “Without organized labor, none of those states would have been in the president’s column.”
Still, Mr. Obama has disappointed them by supporting trade agreements and not enacting the Employee Free Choice Act, which would enable workers to join together to create unions and make it harder for business management to threaten workers seeking to organize a union.
“The Obama administration has been a bit of a disappointment to labor. He promised to sign into law the Employee Free Choice Act that was going to level the playing field as far as forming unions,” said Philip Dine, U.S. labor expert and author of “State of the Unions.” “Right now it’s harder to form a union in the U.S. than in any Western Democracy because of our very complex labor laws and general hostility of employers. He [Obama] promised to sign that into law, and he’s not made a priority of that during his time as president. That’s [labor’s] bible.”
But nobody gets everything they want — especially in Washington — and, by that measure, the unions have done extremely well under Mr. Obama’s watch, said Mr. Holtz-Eakin. From using his bully pulpit to advocate for a national minimum wage to support for collective bargaining, the national dialogue — and the unions’ piggy bank — has profited by having Mr. Obama as president, he said.
Back in Ohio, democratic representative Tim Ryan is campaigning for his 2016 bid. In a press release he congratulated the Akron International Chemical Workers Union for securing the $900,000 federal contract.
“I applaud the Akron International Chemical Workers Union for securing this funding to implement the necessary training programs to ensure workers in our community are safe and secure,” Mr. Ryan said in the statement. “I will continue to fight for investments for our communities that will help hardworking Americans get the training they need to do their jobs efficiently and effectively.”
So far in the 2016 cycle, unions are the biggest contributors to his campaign committee and leadership PAC, donating $30,500 so far, according to OpenSecrets.org.