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Some labor unions question dividends of helping to elect Democrats

Updated Monday, Sept. 24, 2012 | 1:41 p.m.

For Nevada’s unions, election season is business time.

There are phone banks to run. Voters to register. Doors to knock on.

Over several cycles, the unions have become an indispensable factor in Nevada Democrats’ storied ground game.

But while they used to work in the political trenches with confidence that the candidates they backed would deliver concrete dividends on the union platform, lately they’ve been working on credit and faith that for some, is starting to run a little low.

“At this point in history, labor is taking a beating,” said Richard Miller, a Nevada delegate to the Democratic National Convention and vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. “We are asking those Democrats who promised to do the work to step up and not to take us for granted. Step up.”

When Democrats took over Washington, D.C., and Carson City, the unions presumed it was their moment to see their prize issues realized, from better collective bargaining rights for public sector workers to card check, which would allow workers to simply sign a card if they want to join a union versus conducting a secret-ballot election that could be a drawn-out affair.

Instead, unions have watched their position backslide across the country. Nevada’s teachers have had to make major concessions. The culinary workers are bracing themselves for potential new taxes under the health care law. Even in President Barack Obama’s arguably most successful economic venture, the auto industry bailout, the unions had to make concessions.

Card check in this environment? Unlikely.

“Things have changed, and they’ve changed definitely for the worse,” said Gary Burtless, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who specializes in economic policy, including labor relations. “Unions are in weaker shape now, and it’s mainly because of the development of politics in the U.S.”

Although Democrats traditionally have been the more vocal party about union labor, it’s Republicans who have dominated the talk on the subject in the past two years — though not from the perspective labor leaders want to hear.

Republicans have been pushing back at unions on both the state — most notably in Wisconsin where Gov. Scott Walker has sought to curtail public employee collective bargaining rights — and national levels. In Congress, members of the Republican-controlled House recently voted to zero out funding for the National Labor Relations Board after Obama made recess appointments to the board that many disputed.

“I’ve received enough phone calls from Wisconsin to know that things can get much worse,” Burtless said. “The question that union members and union leaders have to ask themselves, of the two people contesting offices, which one is going to at least hold us harmless? Because things can get worse.”

Union leaders in Nevada have done that calculation and come to the conclusion that they’d rather have Obama.

“It was really difficult for the many of the unions to make concessions,” said Al Martinez, president of the Service Employees International Union 1107 in Las Vegas and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. “But I don’t attribute that to the president. Obviously the economic downturn came in around 2008, 2009. It is what it is.”

But others worry that the Democratic Party might be getting a little soft on labor platform.

At the Democratic National Convention, several union members took the selection of Charlotte as a sign that their interests weren’t so central to the party’s concerns.

Charlotte is “not only not a union town, it’s an anti-union town,” Nevada delegate Dick Collins said. Some of the trade union representatives normally allied with the Democratic Party refused to set foot in Charlotte earlier this month because of the slight.

“We will not be taken for granted,” said Collins, a retired electrician who runs election phone banks for the AFL-CIO. “We are going to make sure that they take care of the promises they give us. And we’re no longer just going to support you because you’re a Democrat.”

They have made good on those threats before, Collins pointed out, citing the example of John Lee, a Nevada state senator who recently lost a primary fight to the much more left-of-center Pat Spearman.

So far, however, the labor unions are playing an active part in the presidential election, as well as down-ticket races in Nevada. The SEIU, the AFL-CIO and the Culinary Workers are running voter registration drives and a turnout effort.

"Our allies understand that the stakes in this election couldn't be higher and remain an important part of our registration and get-out-the-vote operation," senior Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas said.

Recent studies peg labor unions as making up only 7 percent of the private sector workforce, as opposed to more than a third of the same workforce more than a century ago — an indication of potentially dwindling political might.

That means the unions' voice at the table is not only comparatively smaller when it comes to a national conversation about labor, it’s also comparatively smaller when it comes to the campaigns’ bottom line.

“Their political contributions were big when the sums were not large,” Burtless said, explaining that the traditional financial heft of Big Labor had been reduced in the post-Citizens United era by the tens of millions coming from billionaire players such as Sheldon Adelson. “They seemed like a much more formidable force in American politics when they represented over 30 percent of the workforce.”

Half of the unions’ challenge is convincing their own rank and file that it’s still worth fighting for a party that politically cannot prioritize them.

“The history of our movement is struggle,” said Bill Samuel, policy chief for the AFL-CIO, who suggested that Obama might have more executive powers at his disposal to help unions in a second term. But he admitted that until Democrats could exert legislative control in the House, pursuing any sort of pro-labor agenda “is very difficult. Without the House ... we can’t start.”

“But I couldn’t do my job if I weren’t an optimist,” he added.

Not all are content to simply blame a lack of movement on the Republicans in the House.

“The Democrats will not have the control of both houses anytime in the near future, but it doesn’t mean that we still can’t figure out how to get legislation signed that’s going to be beneficial,” said Rodriguez, head of the United Farm Workers. “It’s incumbent upon us to continue to figure out ways and be creative.”

If there is a creative plan in the works somewhere, however, it certainly isn’t coming out on the campaign trail. Ask union leaders in Nevada whether they’re worried about the long-term health of the union platform, and they strike the tone of a good foot soldier for the Democratic Party.

“Oh I don’t think we have to wait very long for those things,” Martinez said when asked how long unions ought to expect to wait for the next crack at union agenda items such as card check. “I’m hoping for that the first year (of Obama’s second term).”

From the higher ranks of the SEIU, the talk is a little more sober.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect candidate. But there is a situation where you look at the two candidates and there’s absolutely no comparison,” said Eliseo Medina, head of the Service Employees International Union, after a breakfast with Nevada Democrats in Charlotte earlier this month. “This election is not the end; it’s a beginning. ... By God, the one thing we know is in 2014, there’s going to be another election.”

CORRECTION: This story was modified to clarify "card check" as a goal among unions. | (September 24, 2012)

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