Obama, Unions Have Little to Celebrate This Labor Day

When President Obama took office in 2009, labor unions had high hopes with a new Democrat president taking office and Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress. But with just a little over a year before Obama asks for a second term, labor unions have little to celebrate about regarding the president’s first three years.

The unemployment rate hovers at about 9 percent, combine that with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka failing to prod union loyalist in Congress to help out, and unions are left feeling that the Obama administration has let them down.

Trumka, while appearing with Obama at a recent White House event, is still maintaining pressure on the president. In an appearance on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” the union leader reflected on the message he wants Obama to deliver in his jobs speech.

“I’m hoping that he’ll be very bold. He’ll stand up for the American worker and say, ‘this is what needs to be done to fix the problem, and I’m going to fight for it.’”

Obama is scheduled to present his job creation plan in a joint address to Congress on Sept. 8. A White House spokesperson familiar with the speech said the president will probably discuss increasing spending on infrastructure, tax incentives to spur hiring, cutting the employer portion of the payroll tax credit, and changes to unemployment insurance. But Trumka will likely want more.

“I’d say he needs to take another course in bargaining to help out,” a frustrated Trumka said in the same interview.

Other labor leaders are also not hesitant to express their disappointment with the president.

“Obama campaigned big, but he’s governing small,” Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley told The Associated Press.

But not only Obama, but state legislatures have also not been friendly to labor unions. Public labor unions fought and lost major legislative battles in several states in 2011, the most significant being Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, not only did teachers lose bargaining rights, but Republicans retained their control of the state Senate after several bruising recall elections.

The Obama administration and state legislatures aside, labor unions have another problem at hand – the public. Labor unions have seen membership and public support of organized labor decline recently. In a new Gallup poll, 52 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, compared with past years when the figure hit 70 percent.

“Now, 78 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republican approve, a difference of 52 percentage points, compared with a 37-point gap last year,” writes Gallup Managing Editor Jeffrey Jones. “This could reflect a greater politicization of union issues given the fact that many state-level efforts to curb union influence were promoted by Republican governors often backed by Republican-controlled legislatures.”

Shifts in politics and demographics are a major piece of the union puzzle. In past decades, the majority of union employees could be found in factories, mines and construction sites. Now most are in public sector unions – police, firefighters, teachers and office workers are the most prevalent – all of who are on government payrolls.

One of the first places governors and legislators looked to lower cost were salary and benefit packages that were included in collective bargaining agreements. It is no wonder labor unions are being threatened when both economic and political winds are blowing against them.

“The pendulum has swung a long way,” Ross Eisenbrey, a vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, told The Associated Press. “In the next year, I think all unions can really hope for is to keep more bad things from happening and to get as much of a jobs program enacted as possible.”

President Obama will spend Labor Day in Detroit at an annual event sponsored by the Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO. Analysts are predicting it will be a dress rehearsal for his speech on Thursday.