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.
Like 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.