Unions Skittish Over Obama

Salena Zito

3/13/2011 12:01:00 AM - Salena Zito

Philadelphia – Three years ago, almost to the day, candidate Barack Obama told an AFL-CIO convention here, “It's time we had a president who didn't choke saying the word 'union.’”

Amid feverish chants of “Yes we can!” he then threw the crowd the raw meat it wanted: his support for the Employee Free Choice Act.

“I will make it the law of the land when I'm president of the United States," Obama promised.

Battling union Obama-skeptics at the time, Bill George, then president of Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO, whispered: “We will need to do an all-out effort to educate our members, that he will make card-check” – slang for EFCA – “happen for working families, to win this in November.”

A promise made where organized labor began, in 1827 behind Independence Hall, was not a promise kept. In fact, it was never even brought up in the 111th Congress.

The last time card-check saw life was in 2007, when it passed the House but died in the Senate.

Democrats count on unions in every election. Last fall’s midterm exit polling showed that households with at least one union voter did not show at the polls; their numbers were down a staggering 6 points from the 2006 midterm.

That anemic turnout contributed to the Democrats’ thrashing in local, state and federal races across the country, leaving Democrats to wonder how to re-energize their union base.

Enter Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin: By deciding to take on public-sector unions, he awakened their sleeping masses.

Obama’s campaign arm, the Democratic National Committee/Organizing for America, swung into action; turnouts for rallies were built, phone banks organized, signs made, union members from around the country bused to Wisconsin’s capitol, in matching-color t-shirts.

Wisconsin Senate Democrats ran away to avoid a vote on the budget, soon followed by Democrats in Indiana’s state legislature.

“I know the Indiana State Democratic Party has been pouring money into the support of its hold-out legislators … camping out in the stronghold of Democratic political refugees, Illinois,” says Purdue University political science professor Bert Rockman.

The DNC/OFA is funneling money to state parties in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, Rockman says.

Have Democrats found their 2012 version of the Tea Party – something to ramp-up their base and independent voters as Republican governors in state after state take on broke state budgets?

(They certainly could use something: A Reuters poll late last week showed Obama’s approval rating among independents diving to 37 percent, down 10 points from the previous month.)

“At this point, it's mainly helping to energize our base,” said one respected strategist for Democrats. “In Wisconsin in particular, Walker's over-reaching and intransigence is helping with independent voters.”

He admits that he needs to see more of a national pattern before he can predict a momentum shift toward Democrats among indies.

An equally respected Republican strategist agrees: “All the polling shifts I have seen thus far reflect Democrat base intensity coming back ... the downside with independents will be if we cave in Wisconsin.”

Republicans won in 2010 because they got some credibility back with independents on fiscal matters.

But it's probationary: If the GOP loses its distinction from Democrats on fiscal responsibility, then independents will vote on other issues in 2012 – and that will be bad for the Republican brand.

Republicans must constantly remind voters why their elected officials are having these debates: to prevent government unions from locking governors into irresponsible contracts requiring tax increases.

Yet Republicans cannot be seen as trying to "bust" unions for fun or for political gain; independents will be with the GOP on this only if they think the motive is correct.

Despite the big love that Big Labor has given Obama, he hasn't passed card-check legislation, nor will he get anywhere near to doing so until at least 2013 – if ever – if the U.S. House and Senate maintain the same Republican numbers.

He did throw unions a sizable crumb, however, by unionizing 43,000 TSA government workers last month.

Privately, union leaders still are skittish about their relationship with Obama, however.

To them, the president’s decision to drop highly respected economist Paul Volcker as head of his economic advisory board in favor of General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt – who says his corporation derives 60 percent of its revenue from overseas operations – doesn't appear all that union-friendly, which might make unions sit out another electoral round.