Arkansas Race Highlights White House-Labor Divide A year-and-a-half after President Obama's election, unions are questioning whether he has fought hard enough on their behalf. They are disappointed by the lack of a public option in the health care overhaul and about the stalled "card check" measure.
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Arkansas Race Highlights White House-Labor Divide

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Arkansas Race Highlights White House-Labor Divide

Arkansas Race Highlights White House-Labor Divide

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

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

DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

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.

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)

BIDEN: I...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

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

HARLEY SHAIKEN: 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.

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

THEA LEE: 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: 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.

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

ROBERT GIBBS: 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: 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.

STEVE ROSENTHAL: 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: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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