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Unions Seeking Comeback: Obama 'Owes Them Big Time'

Tuesday, 13 Nov 2012 | 10:48 AM ET
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Workers walk off the job at Walmarts, Boeing employees get the right to discuss unions during work time and Chicago teachers get most of their demands met.

Add to this a re-elected President Barack Obama—who's meeting with labor leaders Tuesday at the White House for talks on the "fiscal cliff"—and some analysts say the time may be right for a rebirth for American labor activism.

"I do think it's a favorable time for workers and the unions," said Chris Rhomberg, associate professor of sociology at Fordham University. "What's happening, including the election, is a push back on the reversal of worker's rights that hasn't happened since the New Deal."

Obama's return to the White House will put greater pressure on him to do more for a major constituency, said John Alan James, executive director for global governance at Pace University. (Read More: Small Business Worries Over 'Fiscal Cliff')

"He owes them big time," James said. "The Democrats got a big labor turnout this election. There's pressure on Obama to deliver on things like the Employee Free Choice Act, which makes it easier to organize unions."

There's no doubt labor belonged to Obama in his re-election. Union members voted for him in 2012 at a rate of 65 percent to 33 percent, according to the AFL-CIO. Obama's support in union households was 58 percent, just 1 percentage point less than 2008. And union votes helped to defeat several state ballot measures, including ones in California and Idaho designed to cut education and public services.

Even before the election, workers and unions were pushing their agenda. The Chicago teachers' strike ended in September in what the teachers union called a victory. The summer recall attempt of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker failed, but a state court in September struck down many of the laws he backed to end public union collective bargaining.

Meanwhile, Boeing employees in the aerospace company's nonunion plant in North Charleston, S.C., were granted the right in October to discuss union membership while on the job by the National Labor Relations Board (The NLRB is an independent agency charged with conducting elections for labor union representation and with investigating unfair labor practices.)

Also in October, a small number of workers staged the first ever walk outs at Walmart — lasting just about an hour — at stores in Dallas, Miami, Seattle as well as in California and Louisiana for better pay and working conditions. They've threatened the super store giant with a walkout on Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving and traditionally the busiest holiday shopping day of the year — if their demands are not met.

But analysts don't expect a tidal wave of sign-carrying workers on long picket lines, like happened in the 1930s.

"I think the labor movement, if it's to be successful, needs a new strategy," said Dan Opler, an associate professor of history at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale, N.Y. "The numbers just don't scream labor ascendency." (Read More: Congress Confronts 'Fiscal Cliff')

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  • Total union membership in 2011 was at an all-time low of 11.8 percent in the U.S., according to the Bueau of Labor Statistics. The number of members split among private and public unions, about 7.4 million in each — with public-sector workers having a union membership rate (37 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.9 percent).

    And there's the issue of unity. Just look at the 780 strikingCaterpillar machinists in Joliet, Ill., said Michael Zweig, professor of economics at Stony Brook University. The workers voted in August — after a four-month walkout — against their union leaders in ratifying a contract that bascially gave the equipment manufacturer concessions on wage and pensions freezes.

    "People at Caterpillar were afraid of losing their jobs," Zweig said. "The lesson is that you really have to mobilize workers and organize your base."

    "Companies work hard to keep unions out when it comes to pay and benefits," said John Malloy, an executive search consultant with Sanford Rose Associates. "Why join a union when you are making more money without them."

    For Pace University's James, unions have more or less become irrelvant in today's business world.

    "Since World War II, companies developed their human resource departments to help keep unions out of the private sector and even the public sector," said James. "With HR, there's better motivation and empathy and pay programs that make most workers feel rewarded. Unions haven't adjusted their attitude toward capitalism and are too old."

    Just what Obama and the Democrats actually plan to do for labor remains unknown. Little was said on the issue druing the campaign by either Obama or Mitt Romney.

    But Obama has stated he believes all workers should be given the right to bargain collectively and strike if the need arises—something labor leaders have pushed for. He also said he would see that striking workers are not completely expelled from work. And he supported the Employees Free Choice Act. (Read More: Richest Presidential Candidates)

    But getting the act — which allows unions to be certified solely by a majority sign-up — through a Republican-controlled House will likely prove difficult if not impossible once again. Attacked by the business community as a way to raise labor costs through unionization—and by some labor activists as not going far enough to protect union organizing—the measure has failed to pass Congress since 2007.

    Instead, experts say, the NLRB is the place to look for any immediate movement on labor.

    "Obama has two recess (temporary) appointments to the board that has helped the labor cause," said Malloy, pointing to the Boeing decision in South Carolina. "I don't see Republicans being able to block that (the decisions) except by lawsuits."

    Some say it remains an uphill fight for labor no matter what Obama does.

    "The movement is not good at getting into the private sector, and with right to work laws (not allowing unions) states have put up a lot of barriers," said Opler. "As long as states are determined to prevent unionization, open ballots and stronger penalties for violations won't do much."

    But one expert says unions and workers organizing aren't going away.

    "We may see the growth of worker organization in areas like restaurants," said Emily Rosenberg, director of labor education at DePaul University. "With Walmart, and what happened in Wisconsin and even with some orchestra musicians taking to picket lines, I believe you will see more worker agitation in the future."

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