Like a lover gone astray returning to declare his love, President Barack Obama appeared this week at the executive committee of the AFL-CIO, the country's largest federation of labor unions.
The executive committee of the AFL-CIO comprises three leaders of the AFL-CIO and 43 vice presidents elected from the various unions of the AFL-CIO - basically they run the organization and make all its decisions. Obama's goal was pretty clear: offer his apologies to unions and raise money for the fall election. Top democratic fundraiser Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) followed him on the agenda.
The labor movement is in very rough shape. As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson noted in February, "For American labor, year one of Barack Obama's presidency has been close to an unmitigated disaster." Its greatest defeat during the period? The proposed Employee Free Choice Act's failure, due to White House unwillingness to invest political capital in it.
But Obama's rock star presence seemed to change labor's dire mood completely. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has characterized Obama's endorsement of the mass firing of union teachers at Central Falls, R.I., as a desperate attempt to "score political points by scapegoating teachers," But she gave the president a kiss on the cheek and gleefully took photos of him with her iPhone.
When Obama offered his apologies, the elation of the room of labor leaders simply burst. He touched on the two issues at the heart of labor leaders - unionbusting and trade reform - in a way he never had before. Obama said: "We are going to rebuild this economy stronger than before, and at the heart of it are going to be three powerful words: Made in America." Obama continued "We're finally enforcing our trade laws--in some cases for the very first time" in reference to his decision to place tariffs on illegal Chinese tire dumping and the first ever US filed labor rights complaint against Guatemala.
The president hadn't publicly mentioned the Employee Free Choice Act in over a year. So when the President said "we are going to keep on fighting to pass the Employee Free Choice Act," you might have expected it to be a punch line. Instead it was a very successful applause line.
In the wake of the Massey mine safety disaster this spring, Obama had been criticized by some for not encouraging workers to join unions in order to protect themselves from safety violations. Many wanted him to do what FDR did: encourage workers to join unions. FDR's calls to join unions were put on billboards and pamphlets all over America.
Obama hit a home run with the audience when he said,
FDR said 'If I was a worker in a factory and I wanted to improve my life, I would join a union.' Well, I tell you what. I think that's true for workers generally. I think if I was a coal miner, I'd want a union representing me to make sure that I was safe and you did not have some of the tragedies that we've been seeing in the coal industry. If I was a teacher, I'd want a union to make sure that the teachers' perspective was represented as we think about shaping an education system for our future.
Before the president could even finish his statements, the crowd broke out into wild applause interrupting the president several times with hoots and hollers. Afterward, Steelworkers union President Leo Gerard President said "I think the president made it clear today whose side he is on, and he's on the side of workers"
At a conference a year earlier, Gerard wasn't so sure, saying, "I don't think Rahm Emanuel (White House Chief of Staff) has our back."
Despite their frustrations with the Obama Administration and Democrats, union leaders desperately want to believe the president is on their side after all the resources they invested in his presidency. Afterward the meeting, I asked several labor leaders if they though the president was sincere in what he said, or whether it was just sweet talk.
"The thing is, overall I believe the president is in our direction. The problem is we can pass 400 different things through the House and nothing through the Senate," said Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen. "AFL-CIO this week is going to be looking at this work about launching a campaign about how we reform Senate rules."
Filibuster reform is a gamble, especially since even if it happens, it's no guarantee the White House will push labor's issues. The White House made labor wait on the Employee Free Choice in the summer of 2009 after Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) had announced he had reached a compromise with moderate Senate Democrats on the Employee Free Choice Act.
Now labor faces an even greater attack from Big Business: House Minority Leader John Boehner could take over after November's elections. Labor has already pledged to spend at least $53 million dollars in order to protect Democrats' congressional majority.
At the meeting, I encountered multiple labor leaders who were complaining that they would have to pump tens millions of their union members money into Democrats who had done so little for their union members. "How in the world are we going to get our members to vote for this guy after he taxed our healthcare, did nothing on Employee Free Choice Act?" said one labor leader, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The limits of labor's relationship with the White House were best symbolized by two towering 6'4 tall men standing on the side of the room - Patrick Gaspard and Jim Messina. Patrick Gaspard is White House Political Director and previously political director of the Service Employee International union. Gaspard is the person who people in organized labor go to for help in passing executive orders protecting labor right and getting Obama to speak in front of labor audiences.
Messina is the White House Deputy Chief of Staff who learned his brand of politics as Senator Max Baucus' chief of staff. Messina is who the White House sends to threaten labor with severe repercussions if unions don't follow the White House's plan.
Both men, though, promised progressives and organized labor groups in a meeting that the White House would start bypassing the Senate and creating more change through regulation after Republican Scott Brown's election to the Senate (taking Ted Kennedy's seat) killed hopes of passing key legislative priorities. On the trade front, the White House has been able to use regulations to enforce trade law in the China tire case and a new Guatemala labor rights case.
Obama said government dollars should not be used for union busting. The president's Middle Class Task Force wrote a report in February outlining a series of implementation steps the White House could take immediately to stop government dollars from going to firms engaged in union busting. Obama has yet to act on those recommendations.
As this case shows, there is no guarantee though that Obama will always act in the best interests of labors. Obama has many supporters, including corporate ones, within the Democratic Party and weighs labor's interest against the other alliance he has to maintain. Whether the White House is an ally or enemy on issues depends on Obama's ability to maintain those corporate alliances.
At least for the moment, the labor movement still considers Obama an ally. Furthermore, labor hopes to purge the Democratic Party of those corporate alliances the president now relies upon.
Speaking after the speeches to a group of reporters, Trumka said there would be some Democrats who the AFL CIO would not support in the 2010 elections. He characterized the decision of the Arkansas Education Association to endorse Blanche Lincoln in the general election is as "a mistake." Trumka further added that the AFL CIO was making plans to challenge more corporate Democrats in future primaries.
Labor hopes that possible filibuster reform and threats of primary challenges will allow organized labor to salvage its relationship with a Democratic Party gone astray. For now, The AFL-CIO is pinning its hopes on a party widely unpopular for its inability to create jobs and corporate carveouts.
This is what happens when organized labor gets trapped in a two-party system in which neither party really represents organized labor. Much like someone who returns to a spurned lover, labor will know the constant anxiety associated with loyalty to an inconstant lover.
Follow Mike Elk on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MikeElk