The Obama administration is showing support for labor unions,
while some states, like Wisconsin, work to strip some of their key
powers. If the job market continues to weaken, could Obama's support
for unions hinder his reelection campaign?
Depending on who tells the story, recent Obama administration
moves to support labor unions are either a major obstacle to job
creation or a long-overdue effort to level the labor-management
playing field. Similarly, on the other side of the political
spectrum, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is either a callous "union
buster" or a courageous restorer of fiscal sanity.
Whoever's right, the competing narratives share one important
thread: They signal that organized labor has become a hot political
Labor is in the news this year, not because of strikes or
lockouts (although there's also some of that in sports) but because
of actions by policymakers that promise to empower unions or weaken
them. At stake could be the health of job creation, the tone of US
workplaces, and the power of labor in national politics.
Some of the latest signs:
- The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent panel
whose current four members include three Obama appointees, proposed
new rules in late June designed to speed up employee voting on
whether to unionize workplaces. Critics say that after congressional
Democrats failed to pass a controversial "card check" law on union
elections, the labor panel is using a backdoor means to make the
process more union-friendly.
- In April, another NLRB official appointed by President Obama
launched a complaint against the Boeing Co. for deciding to locate a
new assembly plant in South Carolina, rather than on its traditional
unionized turf near Seattle. The case now looks set to wend a slow
journey through the court system.
- A Wisconsin law that strips key bargaining powers from public-
employee unions took effect at the end of June. Governor Walker
argued the move is needed to put the state's finances on a firm
foundation. But voters who don't like the law have mounted recall
campaigns against senators who supported it.
- Other states under fiscal stress, from Massachusetts to
Illinois, have also been considering curbs to the power of public-
employee unions. For their part, the unions defend the bargaining
process and say they are willing to negotiate reasonable
The result: Labor-related policy is becoming a political flash
point in a way that hasn't been seen since President Reagan fired
striking air-traffic controllers.
Still, the ramifications of the current trend shouldn't be
exaggerated. Most voters don't follow the details of union election
rules, for instance. So political analysts say it's unlikely that
the fate of unions will be a pivotal campaign issue for Mr. Obama in
2012 or for most governors.
But the issue galvanizes a key part of the Democratic base (union
ranks) and the Republican one (many business owners). It could play
a big role in elections in an indirect way. That would be the case
if Obama's support for organized labor appears to result in slower
"Many Americans don't even know what the NLRB is, but they know
the 9.1 percent unemployment rate, and that troubles them," says
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, an economist who follows labor issues at the
conservative Hudson Institute in Washington. "Just as the 'change'
mantra helped Obama in 2008," she predicts, "the same change mantra
will help Republicans in 2012. …