Labor's David Vs. GOP's Goliath
Organized labor is doing exactly what it must do to combat the onslaught against unions being waged by Republican politicians nationwide, throwing lots of money and lots of ground troops into the election campaigns of Democrats – most especially President Obama's campaign for re-election.
The AFL-CIO made it official with a ringing endorsement of Obama. Federation President Rich Trumka declared that "as president, Barack Obama has placed his faith in America's working men and women to lead our country to economic recovery and our full potential. So we're putting our faith in him."
Trumka acknowledged that the AFL-CIO has sometimes disagreed with Obama and "often pushed his administration to do more – and do it faster." But he said there never has been any doubt about Obama's commitment to working families.
On the other hand, Trumka noted, the Republicans seeking their party's presidential nomination have all "pledged to uphold the special privileges of Wall Street and the 1% that have produced historic economic inequality and drowned out the voices of working people."
Trumka characterized working people as "the Davids standing up to Goliath in today's politics. Our strength is in our numbers, our values and plain hard work. When we come together, we are formidable."
Labor's political forces have indeed been formidable in past elections, putting millions of dollars and millions of union members into the campaigns of labor-friendly Democrats such as Obama. The AFL-CIO pledges to do even more for Obama's re-election bid, aided in part by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allows unions to go door-to-door to solicit support from non-union voters as well as union members.
Unions expect to spend $400 million this year on national, state and local elections, fully one-fourth of it coming from a key AFL-CIO affiliate, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The Service Employees International Union expects to mobilize 100,000 of its members, many of them public employees. The AFL-CIO itself anticipates spending nearly $7 million it has collected primarily for campaigning among non-union voters.
The federation aims to outdo its extraordinary campaign for Obama's election in 2008. A quarter-million union volunteers took part in that effort, knocking on 14 million doors, making 76 million phone calls, sending out 57 million pieces of mail and distributing 29 million leaflets at work sites.
It's certainly true that Obama has generally been a good friend to organized labor. But what, specifically, has he done for working people and their unions? Why do unionists feel he's deserving of so much union money and so much union effort?
Why? The AFL-CIO's Trumka cites, for example, Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which "saved or created 3.6 million jobs" and averted a second Great Depression. There's also Obama's championing of comprehensive health insurance reform which "set the nation on a path toward health security," and Wall Street reform that will eventually lead to reversal of the financial deregulation "that put our entire economy at risk."
Re-electing a labor-friendly president will be only a part of labor's election-day mission. Unions will be campaigning at least as hard to defeat the many anti-union Republicans who are running at the local, state and national level and threatening the very existence of unions.
As AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer notes, "they've clearly tried to weaken unions and drain our treasuries. But the consequence has been more like kicking a hornets' nest than draining our resources."
Unions hope to repeat their success of last November in Ohio, where they waged a major campaign that repealed a Republican-sponsored law that greatly weakened the collective bargaining rights of the state's public employees. It was an overwhelming victory with 62 percent voting for repeal, only 38 percent for retaining the law, which was similar to those proposed elsewhere, along with other anti-union measures.
The AFL-CIO is confident that it can rally millions of voters for Obama in Ohio and other battleground states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Unions have already had a major impact in Wisconsin, where voters have approved the holding of recall elections for Gov. Scott Walker, his lieutenant governor and four Republican state senators because of their support for legislation that stripped public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Previous labor campaigns led to the recall of two other Republican state senators.
Obama would seem to need unions as much as they need him. The latest polls indicate that only about half the citizenry approves of the job he's doing. He's going to have to work hard to win over the large body of Americans who apparently don't share labor's view of him, but who could be convinced to at least give him another four years to meet their expectations.
Labor's election–year role, in short, will be to do much of the convincing needed to help rally millions of voters behind their friend in the White House. That would be highly rewarding to labor and to millions of Americans, union and non-union alike.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, dickmeister,com.