Obama and unions: Many in labor movement frustrated with president

President Obama did everything this week that a loyal member of the labor movement could hope for: He quickly leapt to the defense of Wisconsin public-employee unions in their battle for bargaining rights, while his political operation worked to instigate additional demonstrations against Republican governors in other states.

But as Obama's actions were celebrated in one part of the country, he was being picketed - again - in another. On Friday, he was greeted at a factory tour in Oregon by about three dozen high-tech workers who accused the president of pushing trade policies that would ship their jobs overseas.

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Thousands of public employees and their supporters gathered in Wisconsin to protest Republican Gov. Scott Walker's budget cuts. (Feb. 17)

Thousands of public employees and their supporters gathered in Wisconsin to protest Republican Gov. Scott Walker's budget cuts. (Feb. 17)

Two years into a presidency that carried immense promises for the labor movement, this is how it has gone for Obama. Some unions remain firmly by his side, while others think he has reneged on promises or - as he seeks to mend relationships with business leaders - abandoned them altogether.

"He's basically trying to be everything to everybody," said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, a nursing union that claims 160,000 members and is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. "Until you look at the policies, and then it's clear he's there for the corporate sector."

The union arranged a protest this month when Obama addressed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, accusing him of cozying up to big businesses.

Officials from another AFL-CIO affiliate, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said that tens of thousands of its members have been laid off and that they don't see the White House advocating for them.

"They may be lost to the Democratic cause," said Rick Sloan, a spokesman for the union.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said he "resented" the president's recent calls to reorganize the government and freeze salaries because they seemed to feed into a growing criticism of workers. Pointing to Obama's defense this week of Wisconsin public workers, Gage said, "It's about time."

The tensions underscore a careful political balance faced by Obama, who has frustrated many unions leaders and activists after courting their support in his 2008 campaign.

A major disappointment was the failure to win passage of legislation that would have made it easier for unions to organize. Obama pledged to support the measure, but it was stymied in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Obama's support for free-trade deals has irked some labor activists, who recall that as a candidate he was deeply critical of the North American Free Trade Agreement and opposed the George W. Bush-backed South Korea free-trade deal.

He has satisfied labor on some fronts. In 2009, he imposed a tariff on Chinese-made tires, winning praise from the United Steelworkers union, which represents workers in U.S. tire plants. And his renegotiation of the South Korea deal scored popular concessions.

Now, many union leaders are bristling at White House efforts to reset its relationship with corporate America. Unions were opposed to the extension of tax cuts for the wealthy in the December deal Obama struck with Republicans. Some have criticized his call for a review of regulations, including the temporary withdrawal last month of one proposed rule governing how companies report certain worker joint and muscle sprains. And most unions oppose the South Korea deal.

One major outlier is the United Auto Workers, whose president, Robert King, has forged closer ties with the White House than most other union leaders have. He endorsed the South Korea deal after changes that Obama and UAW officials said would benefit U.S. workers. King did not return a message left with his office.

The AFL-CIO, in an unusual point of disagreement with a major affiliate, sees the deal as harmful to workers, and other critics say the UAW has given its imprimatur to an agreement that still allows for parts of South Korean auto imports to be manufactured in China. The UAW's backing of the South Korea deal enabled Obama, in his State of the Union speech, to boast that the agreement "has unprecedented support from business and labor."

Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, has faced a balancing act of his own, praising the White House push for infrastructure funding, for example, while offering careful criticism in other areas. Some on the left, including Ralph Nader, have tried to pressure the unions to push Trumka to be tougher on Obama. Nader wrote Obama last month to decry a "wide symmetry" in his recent aggressive courtship of corporate chiefs vs. his relations with labor.

White House officials point to their work with the UAW and other unions as examples of how the administration seeks to work with labor when there is a common purpose. "There are areas where we agree and there are areas where we disagree, but we all share the same goals" of reviving the economy, said White House spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki.

Still, Obama aides and administration officials have made an effort in recent weeks to ease tensions. Obama's new chief of staff, William M. Daley, a former banking executive and Chamber board member whose arrival was greeted with suspicion by union leaders, has quietly sought to find allies. He trekked this month to AFL-CIO headquarters two blocks from the White House for a sit-down with Trumka, who weeks earlier issued a cool statement when Daley was appointed.

And even as tensions have simmered between administration officials and teachers unions over Obama's support for overhauling public schools, the White House and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have sought to forge closer ties with teacher advocates. Duncan, urging compromise, this week hosted a summit in Denver for union activists and school administrators from across the country.

"In the past year or so there's been a pretty constructive dialogue," said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5-million-member American Federation of Teachers.

Weingarten's members in Wisconsin are among the thousands demonstrating against Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to roll back collective-bargaining rights for teachers and many other public workers. She praised Obama for his assertion that the plan was an "assault" on unions.

Still, the president's delicate balance was evident Friday as his staff appeared to try to play down his role in helping to galvanize protesters. White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that he wanted to make clear that Obama was making two points in an interview this week in which he weighed in on the Wisconsin budget battle.

"One is that he is very understanding of the need for state governments, governors, state legislatures to reduce spending," Carney said. ". . . But he also feels very strongly that we need not to make this an assault on the collective-bargaining rights of workers in a given state."

 
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