Labor's Political Clout Faces Growing Challenges

Unions are under siege, as Republican governors have curtailed collective bargaining rights in some states. As well, national labor leaders say President Barack Obama and Democrats in Washington have let them down.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Labor Day, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

This Labor Day is a tough one for organized labor. The monthly jobs report released on Friday showed no overall growth in August, zero. It was the worst report in 11 months.

The political picture is also grim for unions. Republican governors have curtailed collective bargaining rights in some states. And national labor leaders are counting the ways that President Obama and Democrats in Washington have let them down.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: The battles in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states hit unions with a double whammy. Not only have public sector unions been left battered and bruised, the whole union movement expended valuable money and energy in the fight.

Steve Rosenthal is a longtime political strategist for labor unions.

Mr. STEVE ROSENTHAL (Co-Founder, The Organizing Group): What we're seeing right now is unions all across the country, kind of, you know, plugging holes in the dike.

OVERBY: And on the heels of that battle, came the collapse in job growth. Union leaders have waited and waited for President Obama to make job creation a top priority. Now he's preparing a major speech on jobs to be delivered Thursday.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, told reporters last month that he had talked about it with Mr. Obama.

Mr. RICHARD TRUMKA (President, AFL-CIO): I urged him to propose what was necessary to solve the problem, and I hope he does that. And I think either he will or he won't. And if he doesn't, and if he falls into that nibbling around the edge, I think history will judge him by that. And I think working people will judge him that way.

OVERBY: Unions have been judging the political parties and spending accordingly, withdrawing most of the little support they gave to Republicans. For the 2010 campaigns, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics tallied $97 million in contributions from union members, 94 percent of it going to Democrats.

The Unions also spent another 63 million on independent ads, such as this one from the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees in a Michigan congressional race.

(Soundbite of an AFSCME political ad)

Unidentified Man: When Congressman Tim Walberg agreed that outsourcing is good for the nation's economy, whose economy was he talking about? We've lost thousands of jobs

OVERBY: Now the AFL-CIO is organizing its own Super PAC. Thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, the Super PAC can advertise expressly for and against candidates.

Trumka says it lets labor control its message better.

Mr. TRUMKA: To our friends, it'll give us greater ability to help them. To our acquaintances, we'll do to them what they do to us: We'll tell them we love them and we'll wish them good luck.

OVERBY: Conservatives, such as Steven Malanga at the Manhattan Institute, say voters are unhappy with the union movement right now. But Malanga quickly adds this.

Mr. STEVEN MALANGA (Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute): It remains a very powerful force at the national level, and actually, I think, in many state campaigns.

OVERBY: Already, the nation's biggest union, the National Education Association, has committed on the presidential race.

Unidentified Woman: The measure to recommend the re-election of President Barack Obama as president of the United States has passed.

(Soundbite of cheering)

OVERBY: And Steve Rosenthal, the political consultant, says unions will work hard in the big battleground states. In Michigan, Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania, he says

Mr. ROSENTHAL: Twenty-five to 30 percent of the electorate will come from union households.

OVERBY: For those households, labor's most powerful argument may turn out to be fear. The industrial states were battlegrounds this year as Republicans attacked the unions. And they were ground zero in the 2009 fight over rescuing the auto industry and its thousands of jobs.

One of the strongest voices against a rescue

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican, Presidential Candidate): No to a bailout. Yes to a workout.

OVERBY: Mitt Romney, now one of the leading GOP White House hopefuls. And the others criticize the bailout too.

So for the union voters in those industrial battleground states, fear of Republican assaults later could overcome their disillusionment with Democratic failures right now.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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