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Democrats, Labor and the Morning After: What's the Cure for Midterm Malaise?

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Unions are very good at turning out their members to vote, and often deliver the few extra percentage points that can swing a close race to a Democrat. The party has never needed those voters, and labor's money and organization, more than now. But will they come through this year?

The 2010 midterm elections are a huge remove from the exhilarating days of 2006 and 2008, when Democrats and labor were on offense, armed with anti-Bush passion and highly motivated voters. This year poll after poll shows Republicans are chomping at the bit to vote, while Democrats are dealing with the double-whammy of recession and morning-after let-down.

Democrats wouldn't dare speak the word "malaise," but that pretty much sums up their mood. They had soaring expectations for the new Obama administration and the Democratic Congress. Now they are suffering from the deflation of their high hopes, whether for a much bigger shot of economic stimulus, a public health insurance option, a cap on carbon pollution, a quick shutdown of the Guantanamo Bay prison, or an inquiry into Bush-era torture activities.

Organized labor's particular disappointments are topped by the back-burner status of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to form unions, and the lack of a big public works program to boost employment. "We are looking for economic heroes," Richard Trumka, president of the AFl-CIO, said at a briefing the other day. Still looking, he might have said.

AFL-CIO President Richard TrumkaLike other activist Democratic groups, unions must try to inspire turnout by saying things are better than they used to be and could get a lot worse if Republicans take over on Capitol Hill. Trumka made that case last week when asked at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast what gets him out of bed in the morning. Obama has created more jobs in 18 months than George W. Bush did in eight years, Trumka said. He has appointed officials who enforce health and safety laws, and along with Congress, he has reined in Wall Street.

"There's a lot out there for our members to be excited about," Trumka said.

"Relieved" would be a more fitting word than excited. But Trumka is trying his best to jolt his troops into action. Some Democratic groups and candidates are staying away from Obama -- exhibit A was the decision by endangered Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold to skip Obama's Labor Day rally in Milwaukee. Trumka will be there.

Obama may not be even half the advocate that unions anticipated when they spent tens of millions helping him get elected, but there is every reason these days for them to stay close and help him all they can. He'll be their only line of defense if Republicans recapture control of Congress.

That prospect should strike fear in U.S. workers, Trumka said. "We'll go back to where corporate America and Wall Street ran wild," he said. "Any chance of progress will be ended." You'll see "tax cut bills for the very rich" and cuts in Social Security, he said, but no laws to protect miners and refinery workers, no extensions of unemployment benefits, no job creation bills.

Beyond rhetoric that evokes the specter of Republicans in charge, how do you activate a sleeping giant? Money is one way. Various reports suggest union spending will break previous records for midterm elections -- starting with $44 million by the Service Employees International Union, more than $50 million by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and at least $53 million by the AFL-CIO.

The federation will be active in 400 races in 26 states, from the state legislature on up, Trumka says. They include 18 Senate races and more than 70 House races in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin, Delaware, Georgia, New Mexico, Maryland, Texas and West Virginia.

The AFL-CIO will help some candidates who are conservative "Blue Dogs" and voted against health care reform or other labor priorities, Trumka said. You still consider them friends? he was asked. "Yeah, I do," he said, then smiled. "Some."

Trumka is trying out another mobilization technique this year by picking a fight with Sarah Palin. In a speech last month in Anchorage, he said Palin should tone down her rhetoric or "Palinism will become an ugly word" and she'll be remembered as a Joe McCarthy-type figure. He also accused her of quitting during her first term as Alaska governor to avoid scrutiny of her record.

Asked last week how that squared with an earlier admonition that anger should be directed at Republican lawmakers and "corporate lapdogs," Trumka reiterated his original attack. "She has a responsibility with the position that she's in. She's taken on a position of leadership," he said. "She can't use loose language" that foments hatred or violence.

The former coal miner also noted slyly that "I spent more time in the mine than she did as governor. I served a whole term there as a matter of fact." Palin resigned in July 2009, about two and a-half years into her term. Trumka said he was a miner for seven and a-half years -- nearly two terms.

Palin more than held her own against Trumka by reminding "brothers and sisters," in posts on Twitter and Facebook, that both she and her husband have belonged to unions and they feel people's economic pain. But Trumka's gambit scored him a level of media attention that liberals rarely achieve.

In his perfect world, Congress and Obama would spend the next couple of months enacting transportation, clean energy and clean water bills that he says would create a huge number of jobs. So far, a payroll tax cut seems to be at the top of Obama's economic to-do list, but more infrastructure spending is also on the table. White House proposals could come as soon as Wednesday, when Obama gives a speech on the economy in Cleveland.

As the White House weighs how to proceed and tries to discern whether anything Obama wants could draw bipartisan support, there's at least one wild card in the mix: a surprising potential partnership between the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Trumka said he met with chamber president Tom Donohue last week to discuss common interests, such as job creation through investments in infrastructure. "It was a good first meeting and hopefully something fruitful will come out of it," Trumka said.

Not that he's mellowed out or anything. A fierce defense of public employee salaries, a populist attack on CEO pay, a scornful dismissal of the GOP hope that Republicans will win by running against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- all in a morning's work. "I haven't lost my passion, have I?" he asked, and got no argument.

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Rob & Kathy

tmtee4four12:29 PM Sep 6, 2010 After reading some of these posts, it is easy to see that corporate america will do just fine under the GOP. ************** Strange comment. That's a bad thing? You want to see corporate America fail? Who employs the workers?..

September 07 2010 at 10:54 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Rob & Kathy's comment

You actually believe that corporate America employs workers here. They invest in companys that are moving over sea's and are taking our jobs with them. Companies get dirt cheap labor and then ship their products back to the states for the same price that we would pay here. You might save a few pennies if you had a job.

September 07 2010 at 1:30 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

its great to see that the labor unions are complaining about the republicans will allow the big corporations to rule. while the Obama administration allows the unions to ruin the country. Yes corporations are money hungry, but they do produce jobs. Unions on the other hand create ill will and only collect union dues.

September 06 2010 at 11:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It would help if Democrats took a crash course in economics 101.

September 06 2010 at 5:00 PM Report abuse +34 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to punnster's comment

WHAT WILL MATTER Ready or not, someday it will all come to an end. There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours, or days. All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else. Your wealth, fame, and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance. It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed. Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear. So, too, your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire. The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away. It won't matter where you came from, or on what side of the tracks you lived, at the end. It won't matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant Even your gender and skin color will be irrelevant. So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured? What will matter is not what you bought, but what you built; not what you got, but what you gave. What will matter is not your success, but your significance. What will matter is not what you learned, but what you taught. What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage or sacrifice that enriched, empowered or encouraged others to emulate your example. What will matter is not your competence, but your character. What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you're gone. What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those who loved you. What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what. Living a life that matters doesn't happen by accident. It's not a matter of circumstance but of choice. Choose to live a life that matters.

September 07 2010 at 1:45 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

The wealthy republican elitists who shipped millions of jobs overseas just to cuts costs by a penny---their commitment to this country is measured only by a dollar value...Every time they look at you, they don't see a human being, they see a unit labor expense. As a matter of fact they try not to be around you if they can't help it. That's why they have their exclusive country clubs

September 06 2010 at 4:50 PM Report abuse -35 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to vanbren5's comment

Vance, how would you feel if you learned it wasn't the labor cost so much as it is the punishing corporate tax policies that are making jobs go over seas. Corporation would love to tell the government to stick it....but instead they just get even and make money want your job back ...start looking at the democratic controlled congress for the last 60 out of 66 years(since WW2). kinda makes you mad doesn't it?

September 06 2010 at 8:14 PM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply

sysaphus: The last 60 years is not today or this year or even the last 20 years. Many things have changed and trying to blame one party is silly. How ever the Republicans during George Bushes 8 years controlled the Houses for 4 straight years. What did they do except give us body counts a fuel crisis and a huge deficit. George H W Bush gace us NAFTA and signed it. His time ran out and Clinton just entering as the New President ratify it with some admendments to try and protect the jobs of the American People. Wasn't possible, when it took affect our jobs went out like lightening. There is blame on all sides, but the biggest is the old life long Senators and congressmen and they really need to go.

September 07 2010 at 2:53 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Unions don't kill jobs, selfish, wealthy republican elitists--who will stab you in the back for a penny --kill jobs...Simply put, they aleady have millions, yet they'll ship your job overseas or to Mexico for just a smidgeon in Labor costs just to make another million.. That's how the top one percent continues to get wealthier while everybody else suffers.

September 06 2010 at 4:44 PM Report abuse -35 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to vanbren5's comment

You know nothing about business or finance. Until you do stop spreading this nonsense around. You've been told this for so long you actually believe it. Do you know that you are right in one thing. The rich get richer and poor get poorer. The rich understand money, the poor don't and never will. Ever wonder why a poor man who wins a million dollar lottery goes bankrupt in one year and why a rich man who wins a million dollar lottery doubles it? Well, think about it. It has nothing to do with their stature in life. Poor people will never rise above poverty because they listen to their big brother government, while rich people know how to earn a dime and they know how to double and triple it and the don't listen to the big brother lies. Poor people attend the same schools as rich people, so you tell me what the answer is. Yes, with money you get privlege, but with all the government programs available, the poor have the opportunity now to break those cycles, but, somehow, they have bought the lie that government will push them out of poverty. It's all a lie you see. All a lie.

September 06 2010 at 6:14 PM Report abuse +25 rate up rate down Reply
AZ Stang

I'm a former Union member in the construction sector. When it became clear that Unions were not only supporting, but actively recruiting illegal aliens, I quit, finished college, and now I'm in Construction Management. Unions haven't been good for America for 50 years.

September 06 2010 at 4:43 PM Report abuse +35 rate up rate down Reply

The reason we have so much joblessness today is b/c republicans and their wealthy friends always ship jobs overseas or to Mexico just to cut costs a smidgeon. The wealthy republican elitists want to live here but they don't want to invest in their own people. They're sociopaths, really, they don't care how the consequences of their behaviors affect families and even generations. They already have millions but they'll screw you for another million... Thats the truth and you know it.

September 06 2010 at 4:32 PM Report abuse -34 rate up rate down Reply
paul and karin

how about looking at the American consumer who wants to pay less for their goods and the worker who wants more $ for their efforts and it's easy to understand the loss of our manufacturing base . the consumer won and walmart thrives

September 06 2010 at 2:30 PM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to paul and karin's comment

wait till they get rid of your job..good luck going to even wal mart to buy anything...without good jobs places like wal mart won't exsist because rich republicans don't go to wal mart the middle class you only get what you pay for...if we stop buying junk from china and the rest of those countries and demand buy American and bring back American jobs wal mart won't last ...the middle class must stand up now or end up like those in the nonunioncoal mines and die in horrible work conditions

September 06 2010 at 5:27 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

We have the opportunity to remove many of the old Senators and Congressmen out of office. These that have been there 10 and 15 years many even longer have built an alliance of power to the point that we cannot get anything new in legistration accross. These people are voted in by their states and vote on legistration for the entire Country. They are interested in only what keeps them in office and certainly not for all the people. How do you get change no matter who is elected when you have this. The power no longer rest with the President. It now is in the hands of the Houses.

September 06 2010 at 1:24 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

The same tired arguments, delivered in the same tired way. always play to instill fear, always motivate to divisiveness. This is all too important to our Nation's well being to leave to bilious rhetoric. People, take on the responsibility of citizenship, replace those in office, both in Government, and Unions, with people who actually serve, (not service) the people they represent.

September 06 2010 at 12:26 PM Report abuse +24 rate up rate down Reply

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