The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 22, 2011

Union leaders confront political dilemma

By The Building Tradesman



(By Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer)

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Union leaders, meeting April 13 in D.C., spent their time confronting a political dilemma: What do you do when your supposed allies let you down a lot of the time – but at the same time know they can take you for granted?

That problem consumed the political discussion at that day’s AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting, various people interviewed during the session said. And the leaders didn’t reach a conclusion, either.

Similar complaints erupted at the council meeting in Orlando, Fla., in early March 2010, but were more general. This time, attendees told Press Associates Union News Service that specific complaints surfaced, one by one, around the council’s meeting room. They aimed at Democratic President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, often by name. Among them:

The Fire Fighters were upset that after they won a hard victory to fund fire fighter training and hiring in the GOP-run labor-hostile House, then Senate Democratic leaders and Obama gave the win away in bargaining over a final budget deal.

Industrial unions were unhappy that Obama is plowing ahead with yet another version of the U.S.-Colombia “free trade” agreement. This version adds a side pact, committing Colombia to pursing the murderers of 2,850 unionists over the last 25 years, and following the rule of law. But it has no timetable and no enforcement mechanism.

  • The Machinists are seething that the administration and Congress are fixated on cutting the deficit and the debt, and ignoring the plight of the unemployed.
  • The National Nurses Union says it will campaign against any lawmaker, of either party, who votes to cut Social Security in any way.
  • And at the Building Trades legislative conference this month, AFL-CIO Building Trades Dept. President Mark Ayers said: “Just imagine, if the Employee Free Choice Act (which would make it easier for unions to organize) had been a higher priority, and had been adopted in early 2009, we could have spent the past two-and-a-half years organizing and mobilizing millions of American workers, instead of waging these defensive battles in state after state!”

And not all the complaints were voiced. “We have our own issues, too, but we didn’t air them,” said Unite Here President John Wilhelm.

One leader, Communications Workers President Larry Cohen, differed. He said “90 percent of the discussion was about Ryan’s budget,” citing the GOP Budget Committee chairman’s proposed 10-year spending plan that cuts Medicare, turns Medicaid into a block grant and slashes education aid, job training and other programs. “The other 10 percent was how Democrats and progressives should organize” to fight it, Cohen added.

But even with that, the problem the union leaders confronted is that politically, unionists are in a corner.

A top AFL-CIO staffer who was in much of the meeting said the leaders spent the day “in discussion about how do you choose between Democrats who sometimes sell us out and Republicans who are not with us at all.”

That leaves unionists struggling with what to do. Democrats, including Obama, know the unionists are backed into that corner. “One day, the unions are going to say to the Democrats: ‘It doesn’t matter if we endorse you or not. Because our members are so sick and tired” of broken promises “that they’ll give up voting,” Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger warned.

Unionists aren’t the only upset pro-Democratic groups. Political directors of liberal groups, including the Center for Community Change – a labor ally – MoveOn.org, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee say their members are leaning towards not donating funds and staying home from the polls, or both, in the 2012 race. Progressives discussed their dilemma on April 12. It’s the question unionists and leaders face, too.

“If the president and the Democrats don’t stand up to Republicans” as they did not on the budget deal, on the “public option” in health care and tax cuts for the rich, then “I don’t see people coming out and doing the work it would take to get them re-elected,” MoveOn Executive Director Justin Ruben told the Washington Post.

  • The Machinists are seething that the administration and Congress are fixated on cutting the deficit and the debt, and ignoring the plight of the unemployed.
  • The National Nurses Union says it will campaign against any lawmaker, of either party, who votes to cut Social Security in any way.
  • And at the Building Trades legislative conference this month, AFL-CIO Building Trades Dept. President Mark Ayers said: “Just imagine, if the Employee Free Choice Act (which would make it easier for unions to organize) had been a higher priority, and had been adopted in early 2009, we could have spent the past two-and-a-half years organizing and mobilizing millions of American workers, instead of waging these defensive battles in state after state!”
And not all the complaints were voiced. “We have our own issues, too, but we didn’t air them,” said Unite Here President John Wilhelm. One leader, Communications Workers President Larry Cohen, differed. He said “90 percent of the discussion was about Ryan’s budget,” citing the GOP Budget Committee chairman’s proposed 10-year spending plan that cuts Medicare, turns Medicaid into a block grant and slashes education aid, job training and other programs. “The other 10 percent was how Democrats and progressives should organize” to fight it, Cohen added. But even with that, the problem the union leaders confronted is that politically, unionists are in a corner. A top AFL-CIO staffer who was in much of the meeting said the leaders spent the day “in discussion about how do you choose between Democrats who sometimes sell us out and Republicans who are not with us at all.” That leaves unionists struggling with what to do. Democrats, including Obama, know the unionists are backed into that corner. “One day, the unions are going to say to the Democrats: ‘It doesn’t matter if we endorse you or not. Because our members are so sick and tired” of broken promises “that they’ll give up voting,” Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger warned. Unionists aren’t the only upset pro-Democratic groups. Political directors of liberal groups, including the Center for Community Change – a labor ally – MoveOn.org, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee say their members are leaning towards not donating funds and staying home from the polls, or both, in the 2012 race. Progressives discussed their dilemma on April 12. It’s the question unionists and leaders face, too. “If the president and the Democrats don’t stand up to Republicans” as they did not on the budget deal, on the “public option” in health care and tax cuts for the rich, then “I don’t see people coming out and doing the work it would take to get them re-elected,” MoveOn Executive Director Justin Ruben told the Washington Post.