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Unions see better days ahead under Obama's leadership

On Wednesday, the Labor Department reported that trade union membership rose 420,000 in 2008. New legislation could speed such growth.

By David R. Francis / January 29, 2009

Happier days are here for the labor movement in the United States. The AFL-CIO spent $53 million and its trade union affiliates $250 million to help Barack Obama win the White House, relying mostly on "field mobilization" campaigns to turn out a favorable vote.

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The excitement level already has risen at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. "The most pro-working-family president in years," noted one staffer.

Some labor economists see a possible revival of the labor movement over the next few years leading to a more stable economy through a more balanced distribution of income. CEOs and Wall Street executives would get a smaller share of the nation's economic pie, and workers, with their regular spending needs, a bigger chunk.

President Obama's newly appointed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) chair, Wilma Liebman, is seen as more sympathetic to labor than her recent predecessors.

"What a refreshing change it will be to have a labor board that aims to safeguard rather than blockade workers' rights," stated AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

On Wednesday, the Labor Department reported that trade union membership rose 420,000 in 2008, to 12.4 percent of the workforce, up from 12.1 percent in 2007.

Moreover, Obama has promised to push for and sign the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) should Congress pass the measure. Trade unionists see that bill as offering a major opportunity to enlarge their numbers by making it easier to organize more offices and more plants.

Though passed by the House in 2007, the bill got no further, and faced a veto by President Bush.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid says he will bring up that bill this summer. There promises to be a major political battle between trade unionists and their Democratic allies, and business management and its Republican supporters over EFCA. Millions probably will be spent on the campaign in the next several months.

Harry Holzer, an economist at Washington's Georgetown University, is skeptical that the EFCA will get the 60 votes necessary in the Senate to avoid a Republican filibuster.