NPR logo

Arkansas Race Highlights White House-Labor Divide

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Arkansas Race Highlights White House-Labor Divide


Arkansas Race Highlights White House-Labor Divide

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Now President Obama faces a confrontation closer to home. The president supported Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln in a primary this week.


Democratic-leaning labor unions opposed her. The White House won, but the battle points to deeper divisions.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: When Barack Obama was elected less than two years ago, union members felt they had something to celebrate. The new president was in office barely a week, when he invited labor leaders to a White House event, along with Vice President Joseph Biden.

Vice President JOSEPH BIDEN: It's good to see so many of my friends from organized - our friends from organized labor, as well. Welcome back to the White House.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Vice-President BIDEN: I...

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: The president quickly signed executive orders reversing several Bush-era policies seen as harmful to unions.

Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken, who studies organized labor, says unions believed that was just the beginning.

Professor HARLEY SHAIKEN (University of California Berkeley): There was really euphoria when President Obama won. Organized labor was a vital part of that winning coalition. Labor put everything forward. There was enormous excitement and considerable resources in play. So, it was viewed as a major victory.

HORSLEY: But a year and a half later, Shaiken says, unions are questioning whether the president has fought hard enough on their behalf. They were disappointed when he jettisoned a public option from the health care overhaul. And they are especially frustrated that card check, a measure to make union organizing easier, remains bottled up in Congress.

Prof. SHAIKEN: There's a feeling that the president's heart may be in the right place, but he has not been aggressive enough on issues that have been key to labor.

HORSLEY: Unions channeled all that unhappiness into a campaign to oust Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln in the primary, and replace her with another Democrat.

Lincoln had earned the union's wrath by opposing card check, the public option and the appointment of a union lawyer to the National Labor Relations Board. Never mind that Arkansas has the second-lowest rate of union membership in the country.

Thea Lee of the AFL-CIO says union members were fired up.

Ms. THEA LEE (AFL-CIO): We wanted to send a message to Blanche Lincoln, but also to other Democrats, that the labor movement has priorities and we are hoping that candidates for office, and certainly incumbents, will stand with us.

HORSLEY: The union-backed candidate, Bill Halter, gave Lincoln a run for her money, forcing a runoff but falling a few percentage points short on Tuesday.

In the primary and the runoff, President Obama backed Lincoln. Lee insists that's not a sign of a broader breakdown between the White House and organized labor.

Ms. LEE: I think we have a strong relationship with the White House and with President Obama, and we support a lot of the initiatives they've put in place, whether it's health care reform, the recovery act, financial reform. None of them go quite as far as we'd like to see them go, but they're all in the right direction.

We're maybe not going to agree on every single issue, and we're certainly not going to agree on every single candidate. But I think it's OK for friends to disagree at times.

HORSLEY: Yesterday, the disagreement turned testy. After Lincoln's win, the Washington website Politico quoted a senior but unnamed White House official complaining that organized labor had, quote, "just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise."

President Obama himself might not put it that way, said spokesman Robert Gibbs, but the sentiment is not far off.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Spokesman, White House): We're likely to have very close elections in very many places throughout the country in November. That money might come in more handy then.

HORSLEY: That's exactly the kind of pragmatic calculation the White House has brought to many battles over the last year and a half. And it's exactly that kind of calculation that often angers the president's most liberal supporters.

Gibbs says people who backed either Lincoln or Halter in the primary, now have an obligation to rally around the Democratic nominee. Former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal says don't count on it.

Mr. STEVE ROSENTHAL (Former Political Director, AFL-CIO): There will be places where labor will be fighting strong with the Democrats and there may be some places where the Democrats will be fighting strong on their own. Not every union is going to be rushing to defend every Democrat because they have a D after their name.

HORSLEY: Ultimately, that's how organized labor can punish a candidate it doesn't like. If unions are unsuccessful choosing a different nominee, their members can always stay home on Election Day.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)


Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.