Unions still in the driver's seat
Reid Wilson at the National Journal has a peculiar take on the relationship between organized labor and the Obama administration: "For the first time in more than a century, labor is playing a minor role, at best, in a Democratic-led Washington." Wilson takes at face value the complaints of Andy Stern, former head of the Service Employees International Union, that Obama hasn't given organized labor enough goodies. (" 'The union movement has had and has extremely high hopes for the Obama administration,' Stern said in an interview. But, he added: 'People have felt he needed to be more proactive himself when it comes to policy issues.' ")
This is off-base in several respects. For starters, Big Labor's degree of influence in the Democratic Party has never been greater. Whether we look at the nonstop access of Stern himself to the White House, the prominence of organized labor in the list of top third-party donors, the foot-dragging on free-trade deals or the appointments by this administration (Hilda Solis to the Labor Department and Craig Becker, formerly a lawyer for the AFL-CIO and SEIU, to the National Labor Relations Board, to name two) it is hard to think of any other special interest that wields more power than organized labor.
But, Reid says, organized labor didn't get its top priority, the Orwellian-named Employee Free Choice Act (that would have effectively done away with secret ballots in union elections). However, that was not the White House's doing but the refusal of nervous red state Democrats in the Senate to vote for a bill hugely unpopular in their home states. Moreover, by appointing Becker to the NLRB, the administration is attempting to give Big Labor this prize through administrative action.
On the policy front, the administration is already granting waivers to prominent unions. Other union "gets" included the defunding of the Washington D.C. school voucher program at the behest of the teachers union, repeal of Bush-era rules forcing financial disclosure by unions and, of course, the president's rhetorical support for public-employee unions in the Wisconsin face-off.
This is all the more remarkable given the plunging membership in unions. Total membership is down new lows nationwide and now a majority of union members are government workers. Michael Barone of the Washington Examiner recently reported on the latest statistics:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics is out with its annual report on union membership. It's down, once again: 11.9% of employees in 2010 were union members, down from 12.3% in 2009. There were 14.7 million union members, significantly down from 1983, the first year for which comparable data is available, when there were 17.7 million. Note that the population of the United States in 1983 was 234 million as compared to 308 million in 2010.
In 2009, for the first time, a majority of employed union members were public employees. The trend continues: in 2010 there were 7.6 million public sector union members and 7.1 million private sector union members.
So let's be clear about what is going on here. Labor unions are the biggest source of revenue for the Democratic Party. While private-sector unions have crumbled, Big Labor remains a potent force because of its domination in the public sector. They have managed in many states to enlist the power of the government (made possible by the votes of Democratic legislatures and governors) to permit them to collectively bargain and to strike, thereby trumping the power of elected officials. Even when collective bargaining does not exist (in the federal government), unions use the coercive power of government to force employees to join their ranks, and then automatically deduct dues from its members. Those dues are funneled back to unions which make huge campaign donations and "negotiate" luxurious benefit deals from the very pols on whom they have showered with campaign donations. No wonder organized labor is fighting tooth and nail to keep this racket going.
And let's not kid ourselves, Obama is the most pro-Big Labor president since FDR. Organized labor has certainly gotten its money's worth.
| March 3, 2011; 12:05 PM ET
Categories: Obama White House
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