Friday, Aug. 7, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Organized labor has always been one of the Democratic Party’s most powerful and reliable allies, bankrolling candidates and turning out votes — even, at times, at the expense of the union agenda.
But after nearly emptying their treasuries last year in pursuit of the White House and Congress, unions are pushing back, with a growing number of labor leaders threatening strict accountability if health care and labor law reforms fail.
Seeing a lack of progress on those issues, one union has suspended donations to candidates for federal office and urged other unions to follow suit.
“Accountability is a big word in the labor movement today,” said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “When these politicians come up for reelection, we’re going to look at their records and look at them close.”
He added: “I don’t think our people are willing to wait any longer.”
The most pressing issue is health care legislation, which unions see 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.
Locally, it could boost organizing efforts by dealers at Wynn Las Vegas and Caesars Palace and nurses at MountainView Hospital.
But union officials fear the pursuit of bipartisanship on health care reform by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats will lead to the demise of a key aspect of the legislation: a public plan to compete with private insurers.
McEntee, who heads the political arm of the AFL-CIO, singled out for criticism Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who heads the Finance Committee and is leading efforts to develop a compromise health care bill. McEntee said those efforts will lead to a watered-down public plan option, which he dismissed as “gimmicky,” adding, “We hope that leadership and direction can change in that committee.”
Richard Trumka, who will become president of the AFL-CIO next month, told Politico this week that both parties should prepare for a more aggressive brand of labor politics.
Part of labor’s frustration stems from the fact that it has been outmaneuvered by the business community on a key provision of the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize.
Some unions have hit the breaking point.
Michael Sullivan, president of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, issued a letter to labor leaders at the AFL-CIO’s executive council meeting last week, announcing that his union had suspended “all future financial or intangible contributions” to federal candidates. He asked the federation’s affiliates to join him, saying a small group of “pro-business” Democrats were reneging on their health care promises after they won office with labor’s support.
“One union will not have much effect,” Sullivan said. “However, working together will send a strong message that will not be ignored.”
Greg Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, criticized centrist lawmakers for what he called cowardice in the face of Republican opposition. “These coin-flipping Democrats haven’t shown themselves to be strong advocates for anything resembling real, responsible reform,” he said. “Apparently there are a heck of a lot of people in the Democratic Party who seem to have short memories. If we don’t get health care or labor law reform, our members are going to come back to us and ask, ‘What was all that work for?’ ”
As for those Democrats who don’t deliver: “They are not getting anything from us — not a penny, not a phone call, nothing.”
Still, some leaders laid part of the blame at labor’s feet.
Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association, said the labor movement failed to unify behind a “single payer” health care plan and ceded too much ground to the administration and congressional Democrats.
“You wonder how labor ever negotiates a contract when you look at the health care debate,” she said. “We walked into these discussions with a white flag. Now no one is pushing Obama from the left, he’s getting bombarded from the right and he’s out there by himself. In some ways we put him in that position.”
Labor leaders said Democrats were backsliding in the face of steady opposition, efforts they blamed on Republicans and their allies. As DeMoro put it: “Corporate America is winning this debate.”
For their part, Democrats urged patience.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada noted there is still time in the legislative calendar to complete unfinished business.
“Sen. Reid continues to work closely with labor leaders and meets with them regularly,” spokesman Jon Summers wrote in an e-mail to the Sun. “He’s repeatedly stated his desire to pass health care reform this year, and remains a supporter of the EFCA, and he is the only majority leader to ever bring the bill to the floor.”
Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat leading negotiations on the union organizing bill, said Democrats have delivered a number of victories for the labor movement, including fair pay and credit card legislation, in addition to the economic stimulus package.
As for labor’s big-ticket items, he also insisted it was still early.
“This Congress isn’t even half over yet,” Harkin said. “We’ve got this fall and all of next year.”
Sun reporter Lisa Mascaro contributed reporting from Washington.