Obama, don't abandon labor unions

Story highlights

  • President Obama wants to obtain fast-track authority to finalize a free trade agreement in the Asia Pacific
  • Julian Zelizer: Organized labor is right to worry that this would take away more jobs from Americans

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of the new book "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Organized labor is up in arms about President Barack Obama's effort to obtain fast-track authority to finalize a free trade agreement in the Asia Pacific that involves 11 nations. The agreement, union leaders argue, threatens to take even more jobs away from Americans.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka sent a clear message to members of Congress, warning, "There is such a dramatic impact on the standard of living and lowering of wages and a loss of jobs -- this will have a major impact, and then we will not forget this vote for a long time."
The AFL-CIO announced that it would withhold donations to political action committees until this controversy cleared up.
Julian Zelizer
The tension between organized labor and Obama is not new. The struggles have been going on since 2009 when the President allowed the Employee Free Choice Act to wither in Congress.
The act would require that a union be deemed as legitimate when it had the support of a majority of employees and imposed tough penalties on employers who tried to punish workers from forming unions. The President avoided making any strong appeals for the bill, though it was greatly desired by labor organizations as a way to increase membership.
When Democrats chose Charlotte, North Carolina, for their 2012 political convention -- a city not friendly to labor -- unions were livid.
"There is broad frustration with the party and all elected officials," one labor leader said, "broad frustration with the lack of a union agenda." Even though unions were crucial to administration victories such as the Affordable Care Act, President Obama has often been extremely tepid when it comes to the rights of unions.
Organized labor has not been that surprised.
The truth is that unions have been on the defense against Democratic presidents for decades. In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter treated unions like one more special interest in Washington that needed to be brought down while President Bill Clinton demonstrated lukewarm support to these organizations as he aggressively pursued global free trade policies that labor opposed.
"It will cost jobs," warned Michigan Democrat David Bonior said of the North American Free Trade Agreement that Clinton endorsed. "It will drive down our standard of living. If we don't stand up for the working people in this country, who is going to?"
In the past few decades, many Democratic politicians no longer believed that organized labor was a major player within their party, as they had been during the creation of the New Deal and Great Society. As organized labor became a smaller part of the American workforce, Democratic politicians were not as determined to court their vote.
A larger number of Democrats since the 1970s have been elected by upper middle class suburban constituencies in which unions are not a big presence. These voters have been more concerned in a style of liberalism that revolves around quality of life issues, such as environmental regulation, than they are with middle class jobs.
Many Democrats leaders embraced a vision of economic policy that centered on deregulation and free markets. New voices that came into the Democratic Party after the 1960s wanted to challenge Republicans by offering a more centrist vision of economic policy.
The opportunities for Democrats to embrace a more pro-union agenda have only intensified with the fierce assault taking place among conservatives.
The Koch brothers have unleashed fierce financial assault against unions. Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin and potential Republican presidential candidate, has stripped away the power of public unions and signed a right to work law that barred unions from collecting dues from employees who weren't in unions.
Unions are under assault, and the movement is looking for help.
Democrats, and some Republicans, often talk about needing to deal with the problem of economic inequality. Much of the talk is often vague and offers little in the way to real solutions. Shoring up the strength of unions is one area where the government can help protect jobs for middle class Americans. Without strong unions, the battle against economic inequality and insecurity will never really get started.
As George Gresham, the president of United Health Care Workers East wrote in The New York Times, "By defunding unions and weakening union members via 'right to work' laws, corporations and those that do their bidding remove workers' primary means of raising wages, securing pensions and improving workers conditions. Workers' main vehicle for advancing themselves and their communities is jeopardized."
Democrats need to listen to what the AFL-CIO is saying. They need to push back against President Obama, even if this creates political opportunities for Republicans, so that the party does not abandon what has been at the heart and soul of their agenda.
As Democrats continually watch Republicans outdo them in terms of organization and pursuit, they need to look to labor more as an ally than an enemy in the battle for the White House and Congress in the coming years.