The massive AFL-CIO headquarters sits on 16th Street in Washington, D.C., only about 100 yards or so from the White House. Nicknamed “the Marble Palace” by labor journalists, the building contains several auditoriums and its own patio. Across its lobby stretches a giant two-story mural done in a socialist realist style, depicting laborers heroically at work. On Tuesday, union activists transformed much of its interior into a massive call center in order to make Get Out the Vote phone calls to voters in Virginia—which ultimately broke for Obama 50.8 percent to Romney’s 47.8 percent.
The Marble Palace might give off the feel of a powerful, robust labor movement, bursting with resources, but the second mortgage that the AFL-CIO took out on the building in 2007 for $45 million suggests a different narrative. It tells a tale of a labor movement bleeding members and revenue. Indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reported last week, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) needed to take out a $5-million dollar loan from the union-owned Amalgamated Bank in order to continue its efforts to keep the Senate in Democratic control.
Yet the labor movement as a whole spent an estimated $400 million electing Democrats this year, demonstrating how costly they believe a Republican takeover could have been.
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“Romney has been one of the most voracious anti-union candidates ever,” AFSCME Communication Director Chris Policano said this week. “He has said that he wants to nationalize right to work. He has talked about wanting to de-unionize the federal government. Actually, it’s the only thing he hasn’t flip-flopped on. It’s one of the few things that he has stayed consistent on. That’s why we have made such a big investment in defeating him.”
But while labor spent heavily to re-elect Barack Obama, it’s not clear that Obama will return the favor. From failing to pass labor’s key priority, the Employee Free Choice Act (which would have made it easier for workers to organize), to freezing the pay of federal workers, to signing free trade treaties with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama (and now in the process of negotiating the largest free trade treaty ever, the Trans Pacific Partnership, which involves most of the nations on the Pacific Rim), Obama has hardly been labor’s strongest champion. Indeed, rumors are swirling around Washington that Obama might use his second term to strike a “Grand Bargain” in which he would agree to cut Social Security in order to raise taxes and reduce the deficit.
But despite all these concerns, the mood was upbeat at the AFL-CIO’s phone bank. Many said that despite some misgivings about Obama’s first term, union members are still fired up about him.
A few, however, voiced discontent. “Union members are more enthusiastic about Democratic presidents than [those] presidents are about unions, I think,” said one staffer from a major international union who was phone banking. (He did not want to be identified out of fear of upsetting his union.) “Clinton goes into a union hall and people go crazy for him. But if you look at what he did he was as bad as a Republican.”
Still, some in organized labor hope they can win Obama to labor’s side in his second term. Organized labor has been largely credited with pushing the “Bain Capital” message that helped tank Romney by defining him as out-of-touch. Likewise, many union members claim that they laid the groundwork for Obama’s success in Ohio by mobilizing their members to defeat a WHEN ballot referendum, S.B. 5, that would have stripped public-sector union members of collective bargaining rights.
“Barack Obama has owed a debt to labor and will continue to owe a debt to labor,” says former Staten Island bus driver Larry Hanley, who is the now the President of the Amalgamated Transit Union. “The only question is whether we will be able to call in that debt and hold their feet to the fire.”
However, some in organized labor were dismayed by an Obama campaign mailing that went out just before the election to voters in swing states across the United States. The mailer, a 20-page plan to revive the middle class titled “A Plan for Jobs & Middle-Class Security,” does not contain the word “union.”
“This is but one final pre-election insult to a labor movement that has pulled out all stops to get this administration re-elected,” United Electrical (UE) Workers Political Action Director Chris Townsend emailed to a group of reporters. “I wonder what the hundreds of thousands of union members doing the campaign’s heavy lifting this weekend to re-elect this regime would think if they knew they did not even exist in the President’s economic plan for the next four years.”
Some union members say they understand that Obama doesn’t control Congress and that he can’t single-handedly pass pro-labor legislation. But other critics in the movement say little things (such as excluding unions from his “Plan for Jobs & Middle-Class Security”) add up.
Rick McConnell, for example, still hasn’t forgiven Obama for his actions when McConnell was locked out of his job for 14 months in 2010 and 2011 as a Honeywell uranium worker in Metropolis, Illinois. Instead of walking the picket line with the union as Obama had promised he would do during his 2008 campaign, Obama flew to India with Honeywell CEO Dave Cote to India and even appointed Cote to serve on the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, from which Cote called for cutting Social Security. Meanwhile, after the lockout ended, McConnell was fired from his job along with other key union leaders and is now collecting unemployment.
“My choice will not be either of the lying bastards fucking up my TV enjoyment,” McConnell emailed me yesterday. “Walking to the polls [now] and thinking of voting Green, giving a high one to the Democrats and Republicans. Glad I’m not paying taxes (Thanks Dave!) to pay the fuel bill for Air Force One!”
Still even UE’s Townsend, who is less optimistic than most labor leaders that Obama will be a labor ally in his second term, says unions still needed to get out the vote for Obama.
“At the end, it’s a rigged and corrupt system so you are at least entitled to vote defensively. There is very little uplifting about it,” says Townsend. “This is about the severity of what we are going to suffer. At least the attack from Obama will be less than the attack from Romney.”