It's not one big happy family for the Democrats when it comes to some of the brothers and sisters in the house of labor. Frustrations are so great that union chiefs on the AFL-CIO's executive committee have discussed backing primary election challenges to Democratic senators cool to their agenda.
The idea was kicked around at the executive committee's January 25 meeting in Washington, even though just over a year ago labor pulled out all the stops to put a Democrat in the White House and expand the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. "Some people clearly supported" the challenges, said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, who participated in the meeting by speakerphone. McEntee said that no specific proposal was advanced for mounting primary fights against Democrats whom the leaders view as less than loyal to labor's cause. Rather, "it was a matter of discussion. When you're in the condition we're in, legislatively, you're looking around like a blinded doe; you're looking for means to pay back and make things better."
The chairman of the AFL-CIO's political committee continued, "Maybe it might be a good idea to let [potential targets] really know some things, let them know where we really stand; maybe we primary some of them--'Blue Dogs' or others."
United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard said of the labor chieftains' discussion, "A number of us expressed our dismay with some of the senators from the Democratic Party who have held up and helped delay not only the passage of the health care bill but all kinds of other things that would help middle-class workers." The prospect of encouraging Democratic primary challenges will be raised with the Steelworkers' executive board when it meets next month, he added. Three senators' names will be brought up specifically, Gerard said: Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Lincoln is up for re-election this year; the terms of Lieberman and Nelson run through 2012.
Although Gerard stressed that he does not blame President Obama for labor's legislative setbacks and thinks that it is important to preserve the Democrats' Senate majority, he declared, "I, for one, am not prepared to work for Democrats who are going to help play that Republican game of just trying to stop legislation."
Other unions that labor operatives say are at least open to the notion of supporting challenges to incumbent Democrats are the Communications Workers of America and the Service Employees International Union. Meeting in Washington on January 21-22, SEIU's board voiced frustration over how little progress Obama's agenda has made, particularly in the Senate.
But labor leaders know that declaring war on particular Democratic incumbents would be a high-risk strategy. "It's one of the ways--but in my judgment, it's one of the last ways--you're trying to [send a message]. The [party] leadership really frowns on that, and the leadership in the House has been extremely friendly," he said. "You want to help them as much as you can, but it obviously remains a possibility out there."
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who attended the AFL-CIO executive committee meeting, said that the conversation among the union chiefs was much broader than electoral politics, but she, too, acknowledged that primary challenges were discussed.
“Maybe it might be a good idea to let [potential Democratic targets] know where we really stand.”--Gerald McEntee, AFSCME president
Weingarten said she thinks that it's important for Democratic elected officials to reconnect with and reassure working people by addressing the public perception that the economy is working for Wall Street but not for Main Street. "When some elected officials, or some administration officials, talk about macroeconomic policy and start justifying that when regular Americans are hurting, it makes people angry," she added.
Weingarten said that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is sensitive to these concerns but added that "the next few months" are crucial: "There has to be changes in both policies and the dialogue so that working people see that the public officials we support are working to make things better."
McEntee is harsher in his assessment of the Obama administration, reflecting the view that the president has not only failed to deliver for labor but has also backed away from its agenda at times for political expedience. "Even though you have [union] leaders who want to support Obama, you can't just make turns on your own people and their priorities, pirouetting and pivoting here and there," he said.
And McEntee skewered the administration's proposed freeze on discretionary domestic spending. "In my judgment, the cuts are going to be made in order to appease what they see as the [party's] right [flank]," he said. "It sounds so Jimmy Carteresque."
Whether or not some unions end up adopting the primary election tactic against their perceived foes in the Democratic Party, organized labor is facing a difficult midterm election season in terms of motivating its members to go to the polls to back their friends. Some labor operatives and their allies fear a repeat of the 1994 midterm elections, when union turnout tumbled--a decline the operatives attribute to rank-and-file members' disappointment over Democrats' failure to enact health care reform and President Clinton's full-court press for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Labor's disenchantment might be felt at the polls just as much this year. Union leaders acknowledge that it is very unlikely that Obama and his party will deliver on the Employee Free Choice Act, arguably labor's top legislative priority because it would make workplace organizing much easier. Persistent high unemployment has disillusioned many union members about what Democrats can produce. So has the fact that the latest round of health care reform appears to be on life support. Now the Obama administration wants to reduce domestic spending when many labor leaders would like to see the White House prime the pump more.
Meanwhile, the loss of the Democratic seat held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts has heightened organized labor's worries about the midterms. McEntee and other union leaders acknowledge that their political apparatus was napping when Republican Scott Brown started to surge in the polls on his way to defeating Democrat Martha Coakley. Although there was no network exit poll to measure what proportion of voters in the special election were members of union households, an AFL-CIO survey of people who said they had gone to the polls found that Brown carried the union vote, 49 percent to 46 percent. By contrast, in the 2006 midterm elections, the network exit poll found that 70 percent of union household members had voted for Democratic House candidates, while only 28 percent had backed Republicans.
Few, if any, labor operatives expect the GOP to get a majority of union votes on November 2: Labor's get-out-the-vote operation will have had plenty of time to communicate with its troops. But many of those leaders fret that there won't be much ground-level enthusiasm for helping Democratic candidates, especially if significant jobs legislation isn't enacted in the coming months. "If we don't [get a jobs bill], it's going to be very difficult to motivate our membership in this fall's election," said the Steelworkers' Gerard.
In 2008, several unions--including the CWA, SEIU, and Steelworkers--ponied up a combined $28 million for an independent expenditure effort to support Democratic Senate candidates. They called that push "Team 60." However, 60 didn't turn out to be a magic number for labor, and some of its leaders now question whether labor will dig as deeply into its pockets in 2010. With the recent Supreme Court ruling that makes it easier for corporations to spend money to try to influence federal elections, one labor operative wondered aloud, "Are you going to be able to fire up these unions to keep it close [to what corporations will spend], or even approach that? Good luck."
Labor's voter-turnout machinery is driven by its troops on the ground at the state and local levels. Some of the movement's national operatives are worried that those troops might not respond to orders from above. "A lot of the guys here [at union headquarters in Washington] may not be making calls" for Democratic candidates, observed the operative. "And when those calls do get made, then there'll be guys in the states saying, 'Yeah, we're on it,' and the [campaign] fliers wind up in a box in the closet."
This article appears in the January 30, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.