04/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Unions Bite Their Tongues Over Disappointment With White House

One of the more remarkable aspects of President Obama's decision to not make immediate recess appointments as a concession for Senate Republicans confirming 27 nominees is the muted reaction from the labor community.

Among those on the losing end of the deal struck between Obama and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are labor unions. Craig Becker, the president's nominee for the National Labor Relations Board who was filibustered by the Senate this past week, will not get the recess appointment next week that union officials were hoping. Instead, his nomination is either dead or put on hold until the next Senate recess at the end of March.

Considering how high a priority Becker's appointment is within labor circles, the news would seem likely to engender some harsh rebukes. But none of the major union leaders have issued an on-record statement as of Friday afternoon [UPDATE: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka put out a tough statement at roughly 3:30 p.m., parts of which are pasted at the end of this piece]. Those offered by their spokespersons were either tempered or directed at Congress.

"This isn't really about Becker, it's about workers who continue to pay the price of Washington's paralysis. It's about the crippled NLRB trying to function with only two of five board members, leaving workers to go it alone against corporations who flout the law," said Lori Lodes, of the SEIU. "Congress must step up and put partisan politics aside and give the president's nominees a fair up or down vote. There is only six months left for Congress to prove to the American people that they can deliver the change people desperately need -- if they don't, November will make 1994 look like a pony ride."

The reserved response spurred talk on Thursday night that a secret deal was struck between the White House and the labor community -- in exchange for silence right now, the administration will commit to using presidential powers to skirt the Senate in order to get Becker in his NLRB post down the road. But Eddie Vale, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, said no such deal is in place, adding that his office and others will be "pushing for a recess appointment as soon as possible."

"Just because we are not howling to the press corps doesn't mean that we are not disappointed and expressing that sentiment to the White House," he said, when asked about labor's reserved response.

In the end, there might not be much to gain by complaining publicly. A host of critical legislative issues still close to labor's heart remain unresolved: from the melding of health care legislation to a final push for the Employee Free Choice Act. Angering the administration at this juncture could complicate labor's bargaining position. Moreover, on Friday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs hinted that the administration will consider using a recess appointment on Becker down the road.

"I think the president has nominated qualified, very qualified individuals for the positions that he has nominated them for. We hope and believe that after the discussion the president had with Senator McConnell on Tuesday, it is clear that the Senate heard that conversation and acted. But as you heard the president say last night... if the stalling tactics continue, he is not ruling out recess appointments for anybody."

Was Becker being subjected to a stalling tactic, Gibbs was asked? "Yes. Anybody that the president's nominated that hasn't been approved is somebody the president would consider [for a recess appointment]."

Nevertheless, one year into this presidency, it is fair to say that unions are disheartened with the results. And part of the problem, observers now say, is that labor leaders didn't speak out early or loud enough. Indeed, union officials were explicitly advised by the White House not to build a major campaign around Becker's nomination so that efforts could be geared towards health care reform. Neither, so far, have worked out.

Summing up the sentiment on the site FireDogLake, former SEIU communications hand Michael Whitney declared: "With health care, Employee Free Choice, and the Senate, all functionally dead, is there anything on which labor unions can revolt?"

UPDATE: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka breaks the ice, penning a hard column for the Huffington Post criticizing Senate Republicans for obstructing Becker's seating and calling on President Obama to make a recess appointment this coming week.

Yesterday, in a deal with the Republican minority, the Senate confirmed 27 non-controversial Obama appointees. The White House apparently has agreed not to make Presidents Day recess appointments--a process that allows the president to temporarily appoint his own nominee while Congress is out of session. That means NLRB nominees--and working people--are out in the cold.

A big win for the Republicans. A big win for corporations that want to file down the teeth of the NLRB. A big loss for working people.

We're used to the Republicans playing the role of Lucy and yanking the football away each time Charlie Brown tries to kick it. We've seen it on health care, jobs legislation, you name it.

President Obama has to end this farce.