Labor’s “Cold War” with Obama

Posted on June 13, 2010 by

The $10 million union campaign to oust Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas primary fell ten thousand votes short, prompting a white house staffer to criticize labor for flushing their members’ money “down the toilet.”

After the AFL-CIO shot back, defending its campaign on behalf of Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, a gradual truce began to take hold.

While there’s nothing remarkable about this kind of intra-party sniping, it does suggest that this white house – and this president – have no affinity for the working-class and its struggles.

I’m not arguing that rebuking union leaders is necessarily the same thing as disparaging workers.  But this administration’s inability to comprehend why the Labor Movement chose to oppose Lincoln betrays its anti-worker attitude.

Although he pledged to sign it, Obama barely lifted a finger last year to support the Employee Free Choice Act [EFCA], a modest labor law reform which would have imposed some restraint on the most egregious forms of union busting.

Blanche Lincoln’s decision to join the republican filibuster threat to kill EFCA – combined with her other illiberal policy choices – gave unions a legitimate reason to try to take her down.

Corporate lobbyists had made defeat of labor law reform a top priority in 2009.  What had been an easy vote for democrats before Obama’s election (EFCA faced a certain Bush veto) had become a serious conflict for democrats, whose allegiance was split between labor allies and corporate partners dedicated to union avoidance.

Labor’s attempt to hold Lincoln accountable was not a whimsical shot at a centrist Democrat but a calculated strategy to demonstrate to other democrats that there are consequences in opposing the one measure which could boost the American Labor Movement for years to come.

Most democrats and the white house view EFCA as a parochial concern of a particular interest group, not a fundamental way to begin to close the wage, income and wealth gap through unionization.

The reaction over Lincoln / Halter shows how little this white house understands or cares about putting power in the hands of the working-class to fight for a bigger piece of the pie.

Comments (5)


  1. Salvador Sanchez says:

    Since holding Sen. Lincoln accountable failed, does that mean that Labor lost credibility and this might motivate other elected officials to not fulfill promises made to workers?

  2. Greg says:

    So Salvador, Not at all. And to Lou, the reason the White House anonymous person used the phrase that he or she did is because Arkansas is a Right to Work state and as such is unfriendly to labor. The only way to have made a real difference in that election is if the AFL has come in before the campaign and soften the electorate up about the value of unions.
    I do not believe Obama is anti union or anti Labor but until Obama for the last 30 years, the movement has been basically dormant. Whoever was in charge, allowed Reagon to kill the brand and the Republicans have done nothing but damage every since. It’s not going to change over night. That being said. Had the AFL chosen to spend it’s money in more labor friendly environment, nobody would have said it was wasted whether they had won or not.

  3. I don’t know why people are so surprised by the White House reaction. There has not been a pro-labor Democrat in the White House or as a candidate for the White House since perhaps JFK or FDR. They have all been co-opted by corporate contributors for decades and we wonder why workers have been thrust into the garbage heap for these many decades. We have to re-evaluate our methodology in supporting those who promise to be responsive to labor but abandon the movement once in office.

  4. Wendel Eckford says:

    Labor did waste their money and energy fighting Lincoln. I agree with Greg that Labor needs to re-appraise its reach throughout the U.S. Labor needs an aggressive and coordinated campaign to explain its relevancy in the 21st century. We don’t have, unlike Europe, a public that is committed to work. We have a population that is wedded to the fantasy of getting rich and someday not working. Europeans understand that no matter what job or profession one has its ALL work and that workers need and have rights. Labor has its “work” cut out for itself.

  5. Matt McKinnon says:

    The Machinists Union membership in Arkansas called for demonstrated independence and accountability after facing complete disrespect during their lobbying efforts on the Employee Free Choice Act. For the first time, as far as anyone could remember at the AFL-CIO, the whole movement drew a line in the sand. Sure, Right-to-Work Arkansas with 4-6% labor density was wasn’t an appealing choice but our independence and our promise of accountability were and will continue to be more important. Too often politicians assume we are somehow bound to support “the least worst candidate”. We are not.

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