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Unions seeking payback for helping Obama

The labor unions that helped Barack Obama win the White House are looking for some payback.
Image: AFL-CIO Urges Union Swing Voters To Support Obama
Construction workers Eugene Ferguson, left, and Ed Bennett look over literature handed to them by Javier Garcia, of the Pipefitters local union, as he tries to convince them to vote for Sen. Barack Obama in early October.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The labor unions that helped Barack Obama win the White House are looking for some payback.

Labor's wish list for the incoming president and the expanded Democratic majority in Congress includes making it easier to form unions, expanding the pool of workers who can join them, prohibiting employers from permanently replacing striking workers and expanding health care.

Getting much of that, as one business leader puts it, won't be "a walk in the park."

Still, labor leaders are confident they'll do better than in 1993, when Bill Clinton became president after 12 years of Republicans occupying the White House.

Back then, the Family and Medical Leave Act, which required employers to grant workers unpaid leave to care for ill children, spouses or parents, was signed into law in the early weeks of the new Clinton administration. But Clinton and the unions quickly parted ways over the North American Free Trade Act, complicating cooperation on his health care plan, which ultimately failed.

"We had a completely partisan war" in 1993, said Andrew Stern, president of the 1.9 million-member Service Employees International Union, the nation's largest union. This year, labor and business are working together under the premise that "solving the health care problem is essential to solving the economic problem," he said.

Ross Eisenbrey, labor expert and vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, said he expects the outcome to be different this time "because the labor movement has a clear agenda and I think Obama shares it."

While Obama's support could help, unions' diminishing membership has made it tough to get their legislation passed. Unions represent about one in eight U.S. workers, down from about one in five 25 years ago.

The biggest labor-business donnybrook in the new Congress will be over a bill that would do away with employers' right to demand secret-ballot elections to recognize unions. Instead, a company would have to recognize and bargain with a union once union cards were signed by 50 percent of the company's eligible work force plus one additional employee.

The House passed the measure in 2007, but it died under a Republican filibuster in the Senate. President Bush had vowed to veto it, but Obama made it part of his platform. Both sides plan to again spend millions of dollars on ads and lobbying for and against it, and the bill may suffer the same fate next year.

"It will be a very high priority fight and a high visibility, noisy fight," Eisenbrey predicted.

Labor leaders say employers have used secret-ballot elections, generally held on job sites, to coerce and intimidate workers into rejecting unions. Employers counter that workers are often coerced by their peers to sign union cards and that a secret-ballot election is the only way to determine their true desires.

"We haven't been bashful" about labor's position, said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's legislative director. "Nor has the business community."

Thomas J. Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said his group is preparing a nationwide effort against the bill and other labor initiatives that he contended unions see as "political payback for their efforts and their investments" on behalf of electing Obama and other Democrats.

"It's not going to be a walk in the park," Donahue added.

House Republican leader John Boehner wrote before the election that Obama's support for the bill "should send a chill down the spine of every man and woman who treasures his or her privacy in the workplace."

In the short term, labor advocates are counting on an Obama administration to help people hit by the economic downturn by extending unemployment benefits and boosting infrastructure spending. That includes coming to the aid of the tottering U.S. auto industry, an issue that has brought labor and big business together.

Last week, the chief executives of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC and the president of the United Auto Workers union asked Democratic leaders in Congress for $50 billion in new loans on top of the $25 billion that Congress approved in September to retool their plants for making more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

Half the new money, $25 billion, would go toward helping the companies meet health care obligations for more than 780,000 retirees and their dependents under contracts signed in 2007 with the UAW.

Alan Reuther, the UAW's legislative director, said a government loan covering most of the retiree health care obligations would give the ailing auto companies a better chance of lining up other financing to stay afloat.

Among other bills that could appear on the legislative calendar in 2009:

  • A new minimum wage increase. Congress approved a three-step, $2.10 increase last year. The minimum now is $6.55 an hour, and the last step, a 70-cent increase to $7.25 an hour, will occur next summer.
  • The Paycheck Fairness Act passed the House in July, but the White House threatened a veto and the bill never made it out of the Senate. Supporters said it was needed to close loopholes that allow employers to avoid responsibility for discriminatory pay.
  • The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, named after an Alabama woman whose pay discrimination lawsuit was thrown out on a 5-4 Supreme Court vote in 2007. The court said she waited too long to sue. The House passed legislation to remove that time limit, but it hit a filibuster wall in the Senate.
  • The House in 2007 also passed legislation to extend collective bargaining rights to public safety workers such as police and firefighters in all 50 states. It stalled in the Senate.
  • Obama has supported legislation to overturn the National Labor Relations Board's 2006 "Kentucky River" rulings that classified hundreds of thousands of skilled workers, such as nurses and construction workers, as supervisors if they direct a co-worker 10 percent of the workday. Labor says the rulings could interfere with rights to join unions.
  • The House last November passed legislation to end workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Senate did not act.