Charles Dharapak / Associated Press
Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010 | 2 a.m.
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When Richard Trumka ascended a stage in Pittsburgh last year to accept the presidency of AFL-CIO, he vowed to reinvigorate a flagging labor movement beset by globalization, corporate power and union infighting.
The burly third-generation mine worker pledged victories on health care and labor law reforms, goals that had eluded his predecessors. With the election of President Barack Obama and Democrats in control of Congress, Trumka said labor’s political moment had arrived — and unions would not be denied.
After less than five months, that moment is rapidly fading and the prospects for organized labor’s legislative agenda are growing dimmer. Union leaders are warning that failures on big-ticket items could boomerang on Democrats in November, with union members staying home on Election Day.
Consider the landscape:
Health care legislation is in limbo; the Republican victory in the Massachusetts last month stripped Senate Democrats of the 60-vote majority needed to overcome GOP opposition. And Democratic leaders in the House and Senate remain divided over differences in their chambers’ respective bills.
Unions see health care reform as key to advancing the labor movement. By taking one of the most contentious and expensive items off the bargaining table, labor leaders argue that employers would be more willing to negotiate first contracts with unions.
On labor law reform, Democrats and Republicans say labor’s No. 1 priority — a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize — is all but dead. Consecutive party losses, first in governor races in New Jersey and Virginia last year and then in the Massachusetts Senate race, have rattled Democrats facing re-election, including Nevada Rep. Dina Titus. That sense of political vulnerability makes a fragile compromise on so-called card-check legislation brokered last year even shakier.
No doubt battered by the recession, the country’s unionization rate slid to 12.3 percent last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For the first time, a majority of union members are government workers rather than private-sector employees.
Union officials — and the labor secretary — used the report to argue that labor law reform is needed to level the playing field.
Labor experts and political scientists say failures on health care and labor law in Washington could have dire implications for Democrats at home in November, dispiriting a crucial constituency needed to spread the party’s message and turn out voters, particularly in nonpresidential elections when voter participation is traditionally low. In Nevada, the fallout could further imperil the re-election of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is facing low approval ratings.
The business community, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has reveled in the bad news for Democrats and continues a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act. The group released a national poll this week that found 52 percent oppose making it easier for unions to organize workplaces.
Indeed, attitudes toward unions appear to be shifting. In August, Gallup found the approval rating for labor unions had fallen to 48 percent, down 11 points from 2008 and the lowest since the organization began gauging reaction in 1936. The rating held around 60 percent for the past decade.
At the National Press Club in Washington last month, Trumka renewed his push for health care and labor law reform, warning that inaction could lead to a repeat of 1994, when Democrats lost control of Congress. Labor’s priorities were the same then: jobs, corporate regulation and health care reform. Instead, Trumka said the Clinton administration passed the North American Free Trade Agreement and empowered Wall Street. Unions, he said, couldn’t persuade enough members to go to the polls.
“No matter what I say or do, the reality is that when unemployment is 10 percent and rising, working people will not stand for tokenism,” Trumka said. “We will not vote for politicians who think they can push a few crumbs our way and then continue the failed economic policies of the last 30 years.”
To be sure, the Obama administration and Democrats have rewarded labor with fair pay legislation and the overturning President George W. Bush’s ban on project labor agreements for federal construction.
Also, Obama appointed union-friendly Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and shifted the Labor Department’s mission from “compliance assistance” to “vigorous enforcement.” The administration has hired hundreds of inspectors to crack down on workplace safety and wage-and-hour violations — and is seeking more positions in its 2011 budget.
Obama is seeking to make the National Labor Relations Board more friendly to labor, appointing three lawyers, including Craig Becker, an associate general counsel to the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. Republican Sen. John McCain, however, blocked Becker’s confirmation because of his ties to labor. Becker’s nomination is in question because Senate Democrats lost their 60-vote majority.
Still, those moves don’t easily lend themselves to a campaign mailer or political rhetoric. Even key parts of the economic stimulus package, such as tax credits and unemployment assistance, don’t pack the populist punch of health care or labor law reform.
“Saving jobs is invisible,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “You need an accomplishment that is clear. No matter what unions try to do, their members and the friends of their members will be demobilized.
“That’s why something like health care is so important. People will say, ‘What have you done for me?’ And the answer is, ‘Nothing or not much.’ ”
On labor law, Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s legislative director, said the union would try to enlist moderate Republicans but acknowledged the difficulty of achieving a bipartisan bill. He said the federation might consider “other tactics,” meaning the card-check legislation or key parts of it could be placed into a larger jobs bill this year.
Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, suggested that was the bill’s fate. “Maybe it won’t be card check,” he said, referring to the full bill. “But there are some things we need to do to straighten out the process for (union) elections and certification and first contract.”
Amy Dean, the former head of the AFL-CIO’s Silicon Valley office who has written about reshaping the American labor movement, said labor’s current lot is in part the result of failing to learn the lessons of the early 1990s.
“In the Clinton years, the labor movement let the White House and the Democrats lead — and we got rolled,” she said. “We have to be prepared to put forward our own vision for the economy ... We have to stop giving our money away and working for people who aren’t working for our needs.”
Dean said labor should use the Obama jobs bill, which could include labor law reform and taxes to discourage outsourcing, as a condition for its support in November.
“If you walk away with the same outcome from a friendly administration as you do an oppositional one, you need to rethink how you’re exercising your influence.”