President Obama has continued in the tradition forged by Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, treating labor unions warmly during campaign season, but leaving them out in the cold after Election Day.
Labor enthusiastically helped President Obama win the presidency in 2008, hoping his progressive message of rebuilding middle-class America would breathe new life into the country’s fading worker movement.
Seven years later, the labor unions have little to show for their support.
“He wasn’t a union-based Democrat,” said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University who has written on Obama’s relationship with unions. “He was seen by many Dems as appealing to new constituencies and not old ones. That is what made him attractive.”
While Obama has never been viewed as anti-union, his brand of liberalism has prioritized blending the interests of coastal elites with those of minority groups, meaning that white, blue-collar union workers have largely been crowded out by environmentalists, internationalists and gay activists.
Most recently, Obama’s push to fight global climate change overruled domestic priorities to create jobs when he blocked the Keystone XL pipeline, which was supported by many unions and would have created 42,000 jobs.
“We are dismayed and disgusted that the president has once again thrown the members of LIUNA, and other hard-working, blue-collar workers under the bus of his vaunted ‘legacy,’” Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said in a statement. “His actions are shameful.”
But nothing has ruffled union feathers more than Obama’s zeal to ram through the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which harkens back to stinging job losses incurred under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Unions have threatened to cut off campaign contributions to politicians that support the deal.
“There is such a dramatic impact on the standard of living and a lowering of wages and a loss of jobs — this will have a major impact, and we will not forget this vote for a long time,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said during the trade negotiating authority debate.
But the tensions between Obama and unions are not new. In 2009, his first year in office, the president turned his back on a bill that would have made it easier to unionize, and he was criticized for not including enough “shovel-ready” projects in the economic stimulus package.
The aggressiveness with which Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has introduced new regulations on industry has also given many unions buyers’ regret.
The aggressiveness with which Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has introduced new regulations on industry has also given many unions buyers’ regret. After enthusiastically supporting Obama in 2008, the president of the United Mine Workers was arrested in 2014 protesting against a proposed EPA rule that would shutter coal mines and power plants.
Even with Obamacare, which was supposed to be the monumental achievement that would finally bring affordable health care to working-class Americans, unions were hung out to dry when a 40 percent “Cadillac Tax” was levied on union health insurance plans. A fierce push is underway to repeal the tax, but Obama has resisted.
To make up for these shortcomings, Obama has thrown unions a bone by stacking the National Labor Relations Board with radical pro-labor activists. In 2015, the board has handed down a remarkable series of pro-labor decisions, such as allowing fast-food workers to unionize and forcing businesses to hand over employee information to union organizers.
But despite incremental progress on potentially unionizing low paying service jobs — and even college athletes — well-paying, blue-collar union work nationwide remains in decline. In 2014, only 11.1 percent of the workforce was unionized, compared to 20.1 percent in 1983.
Their only hope for political survival may now be to beg for scraps from Hillary Clinton — hardly an enviable position.