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Labor unions: the latest moves to empower or weaken them

The Obama administration is showing support for labor unions, while some states, like Wisconsin, work to strip some of their key powers. If the job market continues to weaken, could Obama's support for unions hinder his reelection campaign?

By / Staff writer / July 6, 2011

Public-employee union members and supporters protested outside New Jersey’s State House in Trenton last month. On June 23, the Legislature approved Gov. Chris Christie’s broad rollback of benefits for 750,000 government workers and retirees.

Mel Evans/AP

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Depending on who tells the story, recent Obama administration moves to support labor unions are either a major obstacle to job creation or a long-overdue effort to level the labor-management playing field. Similarly, on the other side of the political spectrum, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is either a callous "union buster" or a courageous restorer of fiscal sanity.

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Whoever's right, the competing narratives share one important thread: They signal that organized labor has become a hot political issue.

Labor is in the news this year, not because of strikes or lockouts (although there's also some of that in sports) but because of actions by policymakers that promise to empower unions or weaken them. At stake could be the health of job creation, the tone of US workplaces, and the power of labor in national politics.

Some of the latest signs:

•The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent panel whose current four members include three Obama appointees, proposed new rules in late June designed to speed up employee voting on whether to unionize workplaces. Critics say that after congressional Democrats failed to pass a controversial "card check" law on union elections, the labor panel is using a backdoor means to make the process more union-friendly.

•In April, another NLRB official appointed by President Obama launched a complaint against the Boeing Co. for deciding to locate a new assembly plant in South Carolina, rather than on its traditional unionized turf near Seattle. The case now looks set to wend a slow journey through the court system.

•A Wisconsin law that strips key bargaining powers from public-employee unions took effect at the end of June. Governor Walker argued the move is needed to put the state's finances on a firm foundation. But voters who don't like the law have mounted recall campaigns against senators who supported it.

•Other states under fiscal stress, from Massachusetts to Illinois, have also been considering curbs to the power of public-employee unions. For their part, the unions defend the bargaining process and say they are willing to negotiate reasonable concessions.

The result: Labor-related policy is becoming a political flash point in a way that hasn't been seen since President Reagan fired striking air-traffic controllers.

Still, the ramifications of the current trend shouldn't be exaggerated. Most voters don't follow the details of union election rules, for instance. So political analysts say it's unlikely that the fate of unions will be a pivotal campaign issue for Mr. Obama in 2012 or for most governors.

But the issue galvanizes a key part of the Democratic base (union ranks) and the Republican one (many business owners). It could play a big role in elections in an indirect way. That would be the case if Obama's support for organized labor appears to result in slower job growth.

"Many Americans don't even know what the NLRB is, but they know the 9.1 percent unemployment rate, and that troubles them," says Diana Furchtgott-Roth, an economist who follows labor issues at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington. "Just as the 'change' mantra helped Obama in 2008," she predicts, "the same change mantra will help Republicans in 2012."

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