Stalled agenda irks labor leaders

Unions see little action from Democrats in D.C.

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / October 12, 2009

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WASHINGTON - With Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, organized labor had hoped to be celebrating a long list of legislative successes this year. Instead, labor’s agenda has been pushed down on the priority list by the very lawmakers they helped elect, leaving some union backers frustrated.

Labor is eager to win passage of a “card check’’ bill, a measure that would make it easier for workers to form unions, but the White House and Congress took up a Wall Street bailout plan first.

In the health care debate, labor is seeking to avoid a tax on expensive health care benefits. But President Obama, who slammed the idea during the campaign, this summer indicated he might be open to such an idea.

The Obama administration is also encouraging creation of some charter schools, a long-time concern of teachers’ unions, who fear money will be diverted from other public schools. And an increase in the minimum wage, which supporters pushed in the last Congress, when Republican George W. Bush was in the White House, hasn’t even been introduced in this Congress.

“It’s beyond belief to me,’’ said Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. While Obama and Congress inherited “a big mess’’ from Bush, Haynes said, “there aren’t any excuses anymore. If you can’t deliver health care, and you can’t deliver jobs, and if you can’t deliver [card check legislation], and you can’t figure out how to take care of the working people of this great city and country, you don’t deserve to stay in office.’’

The poor economy and the attention demanded by such issues as health care, Afghanistan, climate change, and the pending closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison have put labor unions’ concerns far down on the list in Washington, analysts and lawmakers say.

Many labor union leaders say they still have faith that Obama will push for their legislative wish list, especially the so-called card check bill to allow workers to organize unions without a secret ballot, once he gets a health care bill signed. And while unions are anxious about provisions in the health care bill that might affect union members, leaders say the larger goal of getting closer to universal health care is most important.

The White House is reassuring. “We’ve been able to make tremendous progress on issues important to the labor community,’’ said White House spokesman Bill Burton. “We have a good partnership, and we’re going to continue to work hard on issues important to the labor community.’’

Still, some labor advocates within Congress are venting their frustration.

“Labor is the core of the Democratic party. Labor has always delivered for the Democratic party. But the Democratic party doesn’t always deliver for labor,’’ said Representative Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio. Obama “still has time,’’ Kucinich said, but he added that he thinks Democrats need to step up and help workers to merit the campaign help unions can provide.

Only a small portion - 12.4 percent - of the workforce is unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Excluding public employment, the percentage is even lower; just 7.4 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union. Union organizing is especially tough during a recession, said Vanderbilt University labor specialist Dan Cornfield, since people are more focused on getting and keeping a job than on securing workplace organizing rights.

But despite their low numbers, unions still corral their members to provide Democrats with crucial election help: phone banks, canvassing, and get-out-the-vote drives.

Union-sponsored political action committees are still heavy campaign contributors. In the 2007-2008 election cycle, PACs representing labor unions doled out $66.4 million to federal candidates, with 92 percent of it going to Democrats. Less than a year into the 2010 election cycle, the PACs have given almost $16 million to federal candidates, with 93 percent going to elect Democrats.

White House aides say that Obama remains committed to passing the Employee Free Choice Act, the formal name for the card check bill, and note that the president signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act early in his tenure. That law makes it easier for employees to sue for pay discrimination for a longer period of time after the alleged violations occurred.

But the bill is languishing, as Democrats and White House negotiators focus on health care and financial regulatory legislation. Obama, while giving verbal support for the bill, is not putting political muscle behind it, at least for the moment.

“A lot of folks on the left . . . thought that it would be this complete revolution in American society, and things just don’t work that way,’’ said Glen Spencer, executive director of the workforce freedom initiative at the US Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the card-check bill.

“The president is looking at some very significant issues, the kinds of things that really shape a legacy. This bill would be very tough to do, may not be successful, and is only going to be seen for what it is: a payoff to this large interest group that put a lot of money into their campaigns.’’

National labor leaders want to take advantage of the rare political advantage of having such Democratic dominance in Washington. But they say they are willing to be patient.

“The administration has been dealt a really tough economic hand. They’re doing the best they can,’’ said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, said the health care bill was also important to the union, and she understood that Obama needed to get it finished first. Other leaders said that Obama has put strong union advocates in key jobs at the Department of Labor.

“On balance, he’s been a very pro-labor president ,’’ said Chuck Loveless, director of legislation at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. But if Obama and Congress do not deliver for labor, lawmakers may lose the campaign help they will need next year, when Democrats face serious electoral challenges, Kucinich and Spencer each said.

Representative Marcy Kaptur, Democrat of Ohio, acknowledged the labor strides Obama has made but said it was not yet enough. “The president could do much more to give visibility to the cause of working men and women in this country, and their plight,’’ Kaptur said.