Labor Unions Turning on Democrats

Criticism mounts as labor continues to be ignored by President Obama

AFL-CIO Presidet Richard Trumka with President Barack Obama / AP
• September 5, 2013 9:00 am


Health care reform and a flurry of Obama administration regulations have caused internal divisions within the labor movement and led one of the Democratic Party’s biggest supporters to publicly rebuke the president.

The implementation of Obamacare, which received major union support when it was passed in 2010, has soured relations between labor groups and the White House and splintered labor coalitions.

More than 40,000 workers with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) left the AFL-CIO in August, blasting the union for being "in lockstep" with Obama on health care and immigration reform.

"We feel that the Federation has done a great disservice to the labor movement and all working people by going along to get along," ILWU President Robert McEllrath said in a letter announcing the split. "President Obama ran on a platform that he would not tax medical plans. … Yet the Federation later lobbied affiliates to support a bill [Obamacare] that taxed our health care plans."

The break-up occurred just weeks after the AFL-CIO’s Nevada chapter issued a resolution stating that Obamacare would eliminate full-time jobs and endanger generous health care plans that unions have negotiated for their members.

"The unintended consequences of the [Affordable Care Act] will lead to the destruction of the 40-hour work week, higher taxes, and force union members onto more costly plans—eventually destroying [union health plans] completely," the resolution states.

Meanwhile, the leaders of three of the nation’s largest unions—the Teamsters, UNITE-HERE, and the United Food and Commercial Workers—sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) imploring them to rewrite the law to protect workers in July.

"[Obamacare will] shatter not only our hard-earned health benefits, but destroy the foundation of the 40 hour work week that is the backbone of the American middle class," the letter said.

Obamacare mandates that employers provide health insurance to anyone who works at least 30 hours per week. Union leaders are concerned that the law’s high costs will lead employers to ditch health insurance for employees or cut hours to prevent workers from achieving full-time status.

A Reuters analysis of the law’s impact found that employee hours are at a six-month low and Obamacare is directly responsible for the decline.

Big Labor’s discontent with the White House stretches beyond Obamacare.

The administration’s aggressive Environmental Protection Agency regulations have drawn fierce opposition from labor groups that represent energy workers. The United Mine Workers (UMW) blasted Obama in June for his anti-coal climate plan. UMW president Cecil E. Roberts said that the president catered to environmentalist backers, while ignoring union concerns.

"It was disappointing that, as this initiative was being developed over the past several months, no one from the White House reached out to the representatives of the workers who will face the worst of the impacts of these proposals to get our input," the union said in a release.

Obama’s EPA has forced more than 200 coal-fired plants to shut down, according to a 2012 analysis by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE).

The ACCCE found that America has lost between 13,000 and 17,000 coal jobs due to EPA regulations. Those numbers are expected to spike in 2015 when the EPA implements new emissions rules regarding mercury and other coal byproducts.

Raymond Ventrone, the head of Boilermakers Union Local 154, said Obama’s emissions regulations forced a Pennsylvania coal-fire plant to shut down, despite investing $500 million in clean emission technology. He predicted that the regulations would leave 300 to 400 union members out of work.

"They want to do away with coal completely," Ventrone told Fox News on Sunday. "What it seems like the president wants to do is put it on the EPA to stop building all coal-fired power plants."

Pennsylvania lost an estimated 3,000 coal-related jobs in Obama’s first term, tied with Ohio for the highest in the nation, according to the ACCCE.

A potential airline merger is also causing headaches for the industry. Transportation workers accused the White House of waging a "war on workers" after the administration blocked a prospective US Airways-American Airlines merger in August, claiming that it violated antitrust laws.

The AFL-CIO condemned the Justice Department for interfering in the deal two years after the White House approved the merger of Delta and Chicago-based United Airlines.

"Your actions run counter to the interests of employees at these two air carriers represented by TTD unions and are inconsistent with the DOJ’s recent treatment of transactions involving airline consolidation," the union said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.

Union groups spent more than $1.7 billion on political activities during the 2012 election—the most of any interest group, according to the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.

Dr. Steve Allen, a labor expert with the Capital Research Center, said that reliable union support for Obama has actually hurt Big Labor’s standing with the Democratic Party.

"If an interest group can be counted on 100 percent of the time, they don’t have a strong bargaining position—the same as a group that is 100 percent against you," he said.

Allen said that if the Democratic Party continues to ignore union concerns, union members might ignore Big Labor’s call to support the Democratic Party.

"The unions stopped their people from engaging in a full scale revolt against Obama, but the Democratic Party, as its being reconstituted, is not a party where working-class can be comfortable—there’s not a cultural connection between elite groups like environmentalists and unions," he said.