Unions Ramp Up in Wake of Obama Victory

Thursday, 08 Nov 2012 12:01 PM

By Stephen Feller

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Calling President Barack Obama’s re-election a victory for “working class people,” energized unions are ramping up nationwide campaigns in an effort to win greater support for the president’s heavily pro-union political agenda over the next four years.

And that means business owners will have to put strikes, sitdowns and other union tactics on their list of worries along with higher taxes.

Unions found that many Obama proposals were looked on positively in exit polls from Tuesday’s election. They were especially emboldened by a successful $75 million-effort that defeated Proposition 32 on Tuesday's California ballot.

That measure would have starved unions of the tens of millions of dollars in mandatory dues they use to finance campaigns and political organizing. Across the country, government workers have been facing political pressure to roll back pension and retiree health care benefits that in many cases are much more generous than those received by their private-sector counterparts and are straining state and municipal budgets.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a right-to-work law in February banning unions from collecting mandatory fees for representation, and labor suffered a defeat in Wisconsin earlier this year when Republican Gov. Scott Walker defeated a recall challenge following his push to limit collective bargaining rights for most public workers.

Demographic shifts that were key factors in Obama's win have long been on display in California and were critical in the outcome across the state ballot Tuesday, Jim Brulte, a former Republican leader in the California state Senate, told the Associated Press.

"We've become experts at getting 10 percent of the African-American vote and 25 percent of the Latino vote, and that's not enough to win presidential elections," Brulte said. "It's made California, for all intents and purposes, a one-party state."

Even at a time when polls show voters are deeply unhappy with Sacramento and government workers face political pressure to roll back retirement benefits that are straining state budgets, "there appears to be a Democratic jet stream in California," Bill Whalen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, opined to the AP.

"When threatened, unions respond. They play for blood," Whalen added.
Republicans and other supporters "were outspent, outmaneuvered and outnumbered."

But union leaders counter that after years of stagnation and defeats in states like Wisconsin and Indiana, they are now more mobilized and energized. Immigrants and young people struggling for employment are more welcoming of unions, they say.

"We're not just about electing politicians to keep their seats warm until the next election," Bill Samuel, the top lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, told the National Journal. "We want to make sure that our members continue the conversation. It doesn't end on Election Day. In fact, we have to sort of kick it up a notch and we intend to do that later this week."

Leo Gerard, president of United Steelworks, which is part of the AFL-CIO, said on MSNBC the election proved that “boots on the ground” are the most effective way to win elections. Having played a major role in Obama’s wins in the midwest swing states, he said the best thing unions can do is stay mobilized and out there.

Plans to begin lobbying members of Congress in their districts already are being carried out, said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. The advocacy campaign will be focused on limiting cuts to social safety net programs while reaching the necessary “grand bargain” to head off automatic tax increases and budget cuts referred to as the “fiscal cliff.”

"Starting tomorrow — yes, I said tomorrow — working families across the country will be out in communities at close to one hundred events to talk to members of Congress about the coming lame duck session and fiscal showdown," Trumka said. “Activists will send the message to our elected leaders that it's time we say 'no" to benefit cuts for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and 'yes' to fair taxes on the wealthiest two percent."

Trumka said his union, and others, have been discussing the shift from election campaigning to advocating for specific legislation and policies since the middle of 2011. They already have more than 100 events planned for the push, the National Journal reported.

The fiscal cliff — $500 billion in tax increases and budget cuts that some fear will crash the still-fragile economy — will automatically arrive on January 1, though cuts will not happen instantly on that day, so the unions are pivoting as quickly as possible.

Their tactic, Samuel said, is two-pronged. They will promote Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security as essential and deserving of fewer cuts than most other programs, and argue that the Bush tax cuts should expire only for people making more than $250,000 a year.

Most of the events, according to their organizing website, AmericaWantsToWork.org, include handing out flyers at high traffic commuter locations and outside elected officials offices. Most of the events are set for Thursday, Nov. 8, but more are promised in the future.

Unions have received a healthy portion of credit for Obama’s wins in Ohio and Wisconsin.

In Ohio, the auto bailout and rebuttal of several of Mitt Romney’s statements about the auto industry on the stump in the closing weeks of the campaign turned off union members, Gerard said. Exit polls in Wisconsin have shown that voters there with a union member in their household broke for Obama 66 to 33, helping the president there, according to a report by CBS.

Still, the groups received mixed results in several states as to whether voters want them to be more powerful.

Voters in Michigan rejected a measure that would have classified home health care workers as government employees and allowed the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to offer them membership, reported Michigan Live.

Home health service providers could have been classified as government workers because they accept government funds for many of their patients. In order to reclassify the service providers, the initiative would have created a registry that links providers with their patients, including verification processes and background checks for them.

“Although we are disappointed in the election results,” said Dohn Holyle, co-chairman of Citizens for Affordable Quality Home Care, “senior and disability rights advocates across Michigan will continue our efforts to advocate for a strong registry that links home care recipients with trained home care providers who have passed criminal background check."

Proposition 32 received national media attention because many labor unions are funded through automatic deductions from members paychecks. Had it been approved by voters, some feared it’s success would reverberate beyond just unions in California.

"We see this really as a way of silencing the voice of unions and working families," Screen Actors Guild President Gabrielle Carteris said at an election night event. "We know that whatever happens, whether it's affecting us directly right now, it will ultimately not only affect us but also the rest of the country."


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