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The Obama administration's poor relationship with Labor

I don't know why administration officials even say things like this:

Vice President Joe Biden told the AFL-CIO that the Obama administration will still be able to push through a controversial union organizing bill that has been stalled for the past year and looked all but dead once Democrats lost their 60-seat super-majority in the Senate.

At the Buena Vista Palace Hotel in Orlando, Fla., where the labor federation is holding its annual winter meeting, Biden asked for continued support from union leaders despite the administration’s inability to push through two big items on labor’s wish list: the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize new members, and a pro-union nominee to the National Labor Relations Board.

“I know it doesn’t seem like it, but we’ve come a long way in 12 months,” Biden told several hundred union officials. “In terms of the NLRB, we’re going to get it done. In the fight for EFCA, we’ve got to sit down and figure out where we go from here. … I think we’re going to get it done.”

This just isn't credible. They're not going to get card check done. They don't have the votes, and they'll be even further from having the votes come January. For Biden to say otherwise insults the intelligence of his audience.

In terms of NLRB, the White House decided against a recess appointment for Craig Becker, who got 52 votes but was blocked by a filibuster. Compare that to George W. Bush, whose first NLRB appointment was an anti-labor industry type who'd been held up by a filibuster and was seated through a recess appointment.

The White House has demanded a lot of compromise from organized labor (most notably on the excise tax) and offered very little in return, save for the occasional speech assuring unions that the administration would eventually fight for some element of their agenda. Not only is that not enough, but it's not smart in the long run: Democrats need a strong labor movement, yes, but so too do American workers. Without Labor, workers have no organized lobby advocating (however imperfectly) for their political interests and no countervailing force against the corporate sector. It's not a total accident that the decline of Labor tracked stagnation in the median wage (nor, to be sure, is it a full explanation).

The White House obviously can't pick all its fights at once, but as of yet, it hasn't picked any fights on Labor's behalf, or even shown a bare interest in doing so in the future. Some probably take that as Obama being usefully dismissive of a special interest, but in the long-run, letting Labor continue to decline is bad politics for Democrats and bad policy for workers.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 2, 2010; 3:33 PM ET
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The gang that can't even lie straight.

Posted by: AZProgressive | March 2, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

It also strikes me that the White House has come out in support of Blanche Lincoln, while Labor has come out in support of her primary opponent.

Neither of these positions are remarkable on their own (I would expect the White House to support a Democratic incumbent barring exceptional circumstances, if only verbally). But it certainly can't help what seems to be an increasingly frosty relationship.

Posted by: burndtdan | March 2, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

just another example of Obama's socialist, red army, totalitarian plan to remake the US. /snark

Posted by: srw3 | March 2, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

This stinks. Who does Obama think constitutes his base? Who is the base of the dem party if not labor? Oh, that's right, there is no dem party anymore. Never mind.

Posted by: rjewett | March 2, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Well, what indication has 'labor' ever given Democrats that there will be consequences for not moving a pro-labor agenda? Near as I can tell, after a fair amount of past work with labor unions on Democratic campaigns, the unions that constitute Big Labor will reflexively endorse, support, and funnel money to whatever Democrat is running. They do this regardless of the candidate's record or even his/her core values toward working people, and have done it for years. Can anyone remember the last Democratic representative who actually lost labor's support for a bad voting record?

Posted by: andrewbaron78 | March 2, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Ezra is right. Obama has no interest in picking any fights with the financial establishment on behalf of workers. The sooner we all understand that and abandon our illusions about "what he really meant" the better, at least for a clear-eyed view of what we can expect from that quarter.

Posted by: redscott | March 2, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Amen, Ezra, and thanks for highlighting a political and moral issue usually ignored by the Cokies and Broders of the world. Again, this feels like Rahmism to me: kick the base in the teeth over and over again in order to keep Independents and moderates in your column. Talk about a Sister Souljah time-warp.

The real problem, of course, is that the President has no feel at all -- zero, zilch, nada -- for Labor and its constituents.

Posted by: scarlota | March 2, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Wow, I really love this:

"Not only is that not enough, but it's not smart in the long run: Democrats need a strong labor movement, yes, but so too do American workers. Without Labor, workers have no organized lobby advocating (however imperfectly) for their political interests and no countervailing force against the corporate sector."

Ezra, on the same day as he advocates for policy over politics, makes the political case for pro-union efforts. We can debate the merits of policies like card check, but there is no effort here to elevate policy over politics, which is precisely what he was calling for in his Rahm posts.

Posted by: gocowboys | March 2, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

andrewbaron78 asks: "Can anyone remember the last Democratic representative who actually lost labor's support for a bad voting record?"

A. Blanche Lincoln, just a couple of days ago.

Just another SATSQ.

Posted by: rt42 | March 2, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Ezra points out that "They're not going to get card check done."

Hell, not only are they not going to get card check done, but they pulled card check itself from the EFCA.

That would have been OK, arguably, if the tradeoff had been that the rest of the bill got through Congress. But they already caved on card check early last year - then never brought the rest of the bill to a vote. So it turned out to be just another example of Team Obama making concessions on spec, a.k.a. negotiating with themselves.

So if they bring the no-card-check EFCA to the floor, the GOP can demand *further* concessions. And the Dems will probably make those concessions, and the GOP will vote against the bill anyway.

We've all seen this movie a whole bunch of times now. The twists and turns of the plot that once shocked us now just disgust and bore us.

Posted by: rt42 | March 2, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

rt42, What does SATSQ mean? As for Lincoln, good point. But let's say she wins the primary against Holder. Will Labor endorse her? Will they contribute to her campaign? My overall point is that Labor is lazy in their automatic endorsements, and that their laziness creates the expectation from Democrats that they'll have labor's support just because they're Democrats. Remember NAFTA? I bet plenty of unemployed former union members would love to have those lost manufacturing jobs now.

Posted by: andrewbaron78 | March 2, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Oh, Ezra it's not the 60's anymore. Labor just isn't that important in the scheme of things. Only 7-8% of the private sector work force are in unions. What other group of commensurate size would have even Labor's influence? I just see no reason why Dems should do Labor's bidding...

And Ezra don't forget the giant gift to the UAW from Obama. For that alone, Labor should be thanking the administration EVERY DAY!

Posted by: mbp3 | March 2, 2010 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Ezra couldn't be more wrong about handing out gifts to big labor. Labor along with the entitlement that CEO's feel they deserve is a massive problem in the american workforce. Labor has lost sight of its goals, which was to protect the American worker from unfair practices. Now with teacher unions it often holds up paying dues above being a good teacher. It squeezes every drop out of corporations, often being a major factor in their bankruptcy (see airlines, car industry etc).

Then we have the laughable concept that union places are the best for employment as the guarantee good benefits. A check of Forbes best 100 places to work reveals very little union shops, even in unskilled places like supermarkets. Wegmans and the MECCA of all things liberal, Whole foods are both very anti-union, but are great to their workers.

In conclusion, unions bankrupt companies, protect bad teacher and overall are not really needed in most places. There was a time when unions were vital to American families, that time has now passed.

Posted by: Natstural | March 2, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Not quite fair. The WH supported the bailout of the auto industry, generous unemployment benefits including Cobra subsidies, which has never been covered before, and comprehensive heath care reform which is supported by labor. They also agreed to a long delay of the cadillac health plan provisions.

Posted by: wswest | March 2, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, what wswest said. This is a White House with liberal positions on social welfare issues. That's the first time since the Johnson Administration that an Admin with these values has sat in office and really tried to accomplish positive change on this front.

I mean ultimately health care really is a labor issue, even if it isn't specifically a Labor issue.

Posted by: NS12345 | March 2, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

What do you think the stimulus package was? Duh. A huge giveaway to public employee unions. And TARP funds for the UAW? Please. The unions own Obama.

It's been very painful to see the huge deficits this Congress and this administration have racked up in order to save the jobs of state public employee unions. And all for naught, because a year or two from now the federal taxpayer will finally be tapped out and the rest of the states will be obliged to follow the lead of the new Governor of New Jersey, and deliver a great, big, huge, reality check to the leeching public employee unions.

I am greatly looking forward to it. Almost as much as I'm looking forward to watching the UAW sit down across the bargaining table from itself when it comes time for GM and Chrysler to renegotiate their contracts.

Posted by: bgmma50 | March 2, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse

Business takes, care of its loyal productive employees through good wages and benefits only because it is expensive to replace an experienced worker in today's technical world. So many many workers, especially those in the right-to-work states, are satisfied being in a good atmosphere. But the workers who work for cities, counties, states, and very large corporations are apprehensive of the ways of Governments and of indifferent big bosses. There are unions out of that fear. We ought to support those workers with good union legislation and leave alone the others who are satisfied both economically and psychologically. It is too big a country for a one size fits all economic policy, especially at the Federal level.

Posted by: HarGru | March 2, 2010 11:04 PM | Report abuse

"but in the long-run, letting Labor continue to decline is bad politics for Democrats and bad policy for workers."

Actually, fighting the unions is quite a good thing for most non-union workers and the unemployed. Many unions are acting as cartels and monopolies, driving up prices and crowding out the greater number of people that could be employed at market wages. When a union controls the labor and sets wages above a competitive level, management simply moves the shop overseas.

As a result, about half of union members are now in the public sector, running monopoly contracts with the government to extort higher wages and benefits, paid for by the rest of us.

Do we really need unions to protect workers from the government? Maybe the Taxpayers' Union....

Posted by: staticvars | March 3, 2010 12:38 AM | Report abuse

"rt42, What does SATSQ mean?"

It's an old joke originated by Atrios a number of years back - short for Simple Answers To Simple Questions. My apologies.

Posted by: rt42 | March 3, 2010 5:15 AM | Report abuse

Obama can show labor he cares about them by concentrating on jobs, which is what most Americans want him to concentrate on anyway! And he has to stop letting conversatives and obstructionist Republicans stand in his way. Ezra Klein is right on target with how union members feel these days. To learn how union members, like many of my friends feel, go to

Posted by: dcsoccermom | March 3, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

Ezra is right, but so is, mostly, the comment above about labor compliantly going along with virtually every step taken by the Democratic Party and not fighting for its own agenda.

Posted by: gschwartz1 | March 3, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

It constantly amazes me to read the imbecilic ranting of conservative anti-union posters. Clearly they do not realize that it was not so long ago that corporations were machine gunning striking union families in their tent camps, creating armies of secret police (Pinkertons), importing foreign and minority labor to break strikes and keep wages artificially low, and building towns to control and enslave their workers. Now we have WalMart acting against those who would organize there, using private detectives and security companies to do it, businesses using H1B visas and slave countries like China to keep production costs low, and financing companies trying to entice people into debt servitude. We really aren't that far from the bad old days of the labor movement, thanks to the evil of the conservative corporate types and the cowardice and servility of the alleged "liberal left" Democrats.
If there were any jobs left in this country to unionize, there might be something to fight for, but as it is the Tom Friedmans of the world have won and we are in a race to Chinese Communist ways of life-Party Members with inherited wealth, a nomenklatura of necessary clerks and paperpushing professionals, and a vast underclass of peasants. There likely will be another revolution and it will definitely be televised.

Posted by: sparkplug1 | March 3, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

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