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Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted a letter from Ralph Nader to President Obama as decrying a "wide symmetry" in the president's courtship of corporate chiefs vs. his relations with labor. The letter decried a "wide asymmetry" in Obama's handling of those groups. This version has been corrected.

Obama and unions: Many in labor movement frustrated with president

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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)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 3:54 PM

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.

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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.

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.


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