The unions went all in for Obama. What’s he done for them?
Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
On February 17, some 35,000 people showed up for a march outside the White House to protest construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The environmental lobby is going all out to stop the pipeline, which will transport oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries near Houston. In its ongoing offensive against the project, the Sierra Club has endorsed civil disobedience for the first time in its 120-year existence. A Sierra Club protest outside the White House on February 13 culminated in the arrests of actress Daryl Hannah, former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
The surprising thing is not an environmental lobby’s effort to stop a pipeline, but how successful it has been, given that building Keystone XL is a top priority for another powerful Obama constituency—unions. The $5.3 billion project is expected to create 20,000 jobs in the United States, with a great many of them going to union members. After initially approving the project in 2011, the administration has found various ways to delay breaking ground.
Unions were willing to cut Obama some slack on delaying the pipeline, understanding that the president didn’t want to alienate environmentalists until his reelection was secure. Last August, after the White House had dithered on approving the project for over a year, AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka told The Weekly Standard he was unconcerned. “I think we can get it done in the second term,” he said. In the months leading up to the election, Trumka asserted his belief the pipeline would be built once Obama was reelected so often that it bordered on braggadocio.
On January 19, the day before Obama was sworn in for a second term, the president rejected yet another permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline. This postpones a decision on the project to “the beginning of summer at the earliest,” an anonymous official told Reuters. When and if the pipeline will be built remains anybody’s guess. It’s true that not all unions are enthusiastic about the construction of the pipeline. But the AFL-CIO isn’t simply another union—it’s the nation’s largest confederation of unions, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to elect Barack Obama and Democratic allies over the last three election cycles.
The really bad news for unions is that the Keystone XL episode is emblematic of a much larger failure of organized labor’s political strategy. To be fair, calling it a strategy may be generous. After the resounding Republican victory in 2004, unions simply resolved to spend as much money as they could to elect as many Democrats as possible.
Since 2008, unions have doled out more than $1 billion in campaign cash, including over $400 million in 2012. And that’s just what the unions own up to spending. Thanks to transparency requirements put in place by the Bush administration’s Department of Labor, the Wall Street Journal was able to estimate last year that labor unions spent $4.4 billion on political activities between 2005 and 2011. Union political spending now exceeds all other direct political donations, though this essential fact is ignored in the incessant media harrumphing over super-PACs, special interests, and other campaign finance issues. The GOP wave in 2010 notwithstanding, union spending has been pretty successful at securing Democratic victories. Policy victories, though, have been harder to come by.
Aside from the delay of the Keystone XL pipeline, three other union developments since Obama’s reelection bear mentioning. In December, Michigan, home of the United Auto Workers and long considered an impregnable union stronghold, outlawed union membership as a condition of employment and became a right-to-work state. Even coming on the heels of recent failures to stop public employee union reform in Wisconsin and the success of right-to-work legislation in Indiana, no one had imagined this happening in Michigan. Public employee union reform was turned back in Ohio—but only after unions spent $40 million on a scorched-earth campaign that included ads warning modest changes to collective bargaining laws would make it “harder for nurses to give the patients the quality care that they need” and “take us back to the days of Jim Crow.” But if compulsory unionism can’t be defended in Michigan, it’s probably endangered everywhere. Already there’s a movement gaining steam to put a right-to-work measure on the Ohio ballot this year. The days of labor laws being rigged in favor of unions are numbered.