Organized labor delivered for the Dems, but what will it get in return?

On Tuesday’s election, labor unions, as usual, played a crucial role in electing Democratic candidates. Union members voted for Barack Obama at a rate of 65% to 33%, according to AFL-CIO polling; according to official exit polls, Obama’s support in union households was 58%, which is 1 percentage point less than 2008 and pretty much par for the course for recent Democratic presidential candidates.

Yet labor’s political power extends far beyond the 12% of American workers who are members of labor unions. Unions provide the ground troops that are essential for get-out-the-vote campaigns; this election cycle, they were particularly crucial in battleground states like Wisconsin and Ohio, which are union states. In particular, this year, unions played an even more active role in GOTV efforts than in the past, because as a result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, for the first time, unions were able to call and canvass not just union households, but nonunion homes as well. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said that in the last four days of the 2012 campaign, members would be knocking on 5.5 million doors and making 5.2 million phone calls. And that’s just the AFL-CIO; other labor unions and organizations plan to reach out to millions more voters. There is no question that no other group in the Democratic coalition has anywhere near the organizational muscle that labor has.

This past Election Day, labor unions achieved some impressive accomplishments. In addition to helping to re-elect President Obama, they also provided crucial support for victorious senate candidates and scored major successes in ballot initiatives throughout the country.

The big question is, in return for all that massive support, what can labor expect the Democrats to deliver? As The Nation’s Josh Eidelson has pointed out, the results of labor’s efforts in the 2008 election have been mixed:

The president passed labor-backed healthcare and banking reforms, but barely offered lip service to the anti-union-busting Employee Free Choice Act. He appointed National Mediation Board members who made it easier for airline and railroad workers to organize, then signed a law that made it harder. His stimulus funds kept teachers on the job, but his Race to the Top rewarded states that made it easier to fire them. He stepped up trade cases against China, but pushed a massive NAFTA-style trade pact. After initially acceding to obstructionism, Obama defied GOP stalling tactics and recess-appointed a pro-labor majority to the National Labor Relations Board. But after proposing a regulation restricting child workers from using dangerous equipment on factory farms, his Labor Department scuttled it.

So what will labor ask for this time around, and what can it expect? Clearly, so long as we have a Republican-controlled House, much union-friendly legislation will be unpassable. So no card check (aka EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act) for now, and at any rate, some union leaders seem to have cooled on EFCA (perhaps they agree with Richard Kahlenberg that making the right to join a union a civil right would be a better way to promote labor organizing and collective bargaining).

Even though President Obama has hands tied where passing new legislation is concerned, there are many important things he can do for labor unilaterally, by using the powers of the presidency. He can be more aggressive in making pro-labor appointments to the NLRB and the judiciary, for one thing. He can also sign executive orders that promote labor rights, and support administrative regulations in the most labor-friendly way possible. (So please, no more anti-labor debacles like this one, thank you!).

Above all, he can make liberal use of the veto pen should any Bowes-Simpson-type scheme to cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits come before his desk. Those programs are essential in establishing the kind of social and economic justice that labor unions so fervently support. In addition, those programs are so wildly popular that supporting them is not only just, it’s excellent politics, as well. Barack Obama does not have to worry about re-election and taking actions that will please corporate interests and wealthy donors, so there is no reason not to do the right thing, reward his allies and secure his place in history. What has he got to lose?

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee