Big Labor, Big Concerns: Obama's Approach Causing Tension

When two of the nation's largest unions held emergency meetings last week to discuss potential opposition to the Senate's health care bill, the White House paid close attention.

Administration officials were in touch with their counterparts at both the AFL-CIO and the SEIU as each discussed the merits and downsides of the legislation. Days later, when both union groups put out statements -- neither formally opposing nor supporting -- the Senate bill, the White House quickly called to go over the details and the potential fallout.

The attentiveness of the Obama administration to labor's concerns is the latest reflection of an increasingly sensitive relationship between the two. Eleven months into office, President Obama has proven to be one of the most union-friendly White House occupants in recent memory. His staff is in constant contact with union officials, granting them access and input given to few other organizations. And yet, on some of the major legislative items, his administration has disappointed labor: an economic recovery plan that was too fixated on Wall Street, the punting of the Employee Free Choice Act until 2010 and the willingness to drop a public option for insurance coverage.

Labor leaders are loath to publicly criticize Obama, in part because they remain acutely aware of the benefits of staying in his (and WH chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's) good favor. But in private, there is a growing "frustration," as one union official put it. And as it became clear that the Senate was settling on a health care bill that taxes high-end plans (which cover many union members as well as other workers) and includes no additional government-run plan for insurance, a hint of that frustration seeped to the surface.

"What I want the president to do is to work with the conferees on the issues that he has said from the very beginning are important to him and say we have a chance to get some of those done, particularly the ones that relate to making sure that people who don't have insurance will be able to afford what is made available," SEIU President Andy Stern declared in a conference call this past week. "We need his moral suasion. We need his personal involvement and we are totally convinced that what we want done is what he wants done. And all we can do is maximize the effort."

Implicit in the remark was that, up to this point, Obama had provided neither the "suasion" nor "involvement" needed in the debate. It was hardly the most controversial of statements. Indeed, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) echoed the sentiment days later. But coming from Stern -- the closest of the president's labor allies -- it was, as one union hand pointed out, "hard to dismiss."

Stern isn't alone in believing the president can and should do more -- though he may be the most public. Other leaders in the labor community have, for the time being, held their guns. The ALF-CIO's president Richard Trumka, for instance, is giving Obama some leeway for the way his legislative agenda has played out.

"I don't think anybody disagreed from our side that health care is an important issue and ought to be moved," Trumka told the Huffington Post. "So what have been [Obama's] priorities? Now I'm not going to be their defenders. They can do that themselves. But his priorities right now are health care and jobs, reforming the economy, employee free choice act, as part of the effort to reform the economy, as part of a jobs package."

"He has been given a tough hand of cards," Trumka added. 'You know, he got an economy that was falling apart. He had two wars going on that he inherited. And he got a Republican Party that says no to everything. Did you see the fiasco yesterday [when GOP Senator Tom Coburn demanded that a 767-page amendment be read in full]. I mean, come on."

But a measured defense is hardly the same as a ringing endorsement. And when the AFL-CIO decided how to approach the Senate health care bill, Trumka came down harder than the SEIU -- much to the chagrin of the White House.

In reality, both Stern and Trumka are in the same tricky place: cognizant that the administration is, broadly speaking, an ally, though angered by the realization that the president didn't step in as health care reform was being gutted. Internally, the push is for them to take a hard line against the president. Externally, the White House holds many sticks and carrots.

"They're getting intense pressure from the bottom up: locals, union members are really pissed," said one labor aide. "They are afraid of the international unions selling out. And so union leadership is being squeezed from the bottom by members who don't want a shitty bill and from the top by Rahm holding the [Employee Free Choice Act] over their heads."

The outcome, in the end, may simply be that labor barks but doesn't bite, pressures Congress and not the administration and hedges its expectations and resources during the next major legislative debate. As one official involved in discussions with the labor community told Ben Smith of Politico: "They won't oppose [health care reform]. But they will definitely say tough things in the press."