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.
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."
The jobless rate, she argues, is measurably higher because of Obama's policies – not only on labor but also on regulation in areas such as energy and health care.
Not everyone agrees with that view. In fact, the current controversies involving unions are simply reviving some longstanding economic debates.
Among them: How does unionization affect job creation? Do the higher wages and benefits won through union bargaining help workers get their fair share of the economic pie, or do they diminish businesses' competitiveness by imposing on employers a bloated cost structure and stifling work rules? Do public-sector unions deserve the same bargaining powers as private-sector ones?
Economists offer dueling research on each of these questions and more.
In general, states with a "right to work" legal environment and lower union representation haven't shown faster economic growth in recent years than have other states, when measured in gross domestic product per capita. But a 2009 Gallup survey found, in a shift that appeared to coincide with rising joblessness, that a majority of Americans believe unions "mostly hurt" the economy rather than help.
In Boeing's case, union leaders argue that the company's new plant represents an illegal retaliation against workers who have used their right to strike in the past. Now, with the issue in court for perhaps a couple of years, the company's investment in the facility is in doubt. Critics say the message to employers will be to locate offshore, where the NLRB has no jurisdiction. "They're wondering about their freedom to choose where they do business," says Karen Harned, who directs the Small Business Legal Center at the National Federation of Independent Business in Washington.
For years, unions have been a bedrock base for the Democratic Party. Indeed, about 59 percent of all union-member votes go to Democrats. And union donations and campaign manpower also make them vital to Democratic strategy.
But in raw numbers, union votes are a declining share of the electorate (representing about 1 in 5 votes that Obama received in 2008). Moreover, promotion of unions can backfire by pushing away some moderate voters – the bloc that often holds the key to electoral victory.
"It's a fine line," says Stefan Hankin, president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Democratic polling firm in Washington. "Politicians are much better off talking about the concept of unions, why they are important, [than] arguing for more union membership."
Republican candidates must weigh efforts to curb unions against the risk that they may be tarred with a union-busting label. Amid the labor clashes in Wisconsin and other states, polls have found Americans more sympathetic to unions than to state officials who oppose them.
Even as public-employee unions face pressure at the state level, Obama's appointees at the NLRB are pursuing policies that please private-sector union organizers. The board's proposed rules on union elections would compress a process into about two weeks that has typically taken a month or two. Critics say these "quickie elections" are designed to make it harder for employers to share their views on the subject to workers.