Labor Unions Adjust to New Reality Under Obama

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

WASHINGTON -- In the early days of the Obama administration, organized labor had grand visions of pushing through a sweeping agenda that would help boost sagging membership and help revive union strength.

Now labor faces this reality: Public employee unions are in a drawn-out fight for their very survival in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states where GOP lawmakers have curbed collective bargaining rights.

Also, many union leaders are grousing that the president they worked so hard to elect has not focused enough on job creation and other bold plans to get their members back to work.

"Obama campaigned big, but he's governing small," said Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Labor remains a core Democratic constituency and union leaders will stand with Obama in Detroit this Labor Day, where he will address thousands of rank-and-file members during the city's annual parade Monday.

But at the same time, unions have begun shifting money and resources out of Democratic congressional campaigns and back to the states in a furious effort to reverse or limit GOP measures that could wipe out union rolls.

The AFL-CIO's president, Richard Trumka, says it's part of a new strategy for labor to build an independent voice separate from the Democratic Party.

Union donations to federal candidates at the beginning of this year were down about 40 percent compared with the same period in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Last month, a dozen trade unions said they would boycott next year's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., over frustration on the economy and to protest the event's location in a right-to-work state.

"The pendulum has swung a long way," said Ross Eisenbrey, a vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute. "In the next year, I think all unions can really hope for is to keep more bad things from happening and to get as much of a jobs program enacted as possible."

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