Unions will demand aggressive labor agenda even after midterm hit

Organized labor will press Congress for big infrastructure spending and job creation programs even if voters throw Democrats out of office in November's election, union leaders say.

After the 2010 midterm elections and anticipated heavy losses on the left, labor leaders say they expect a leaner, more aggressive Democratic Congress to push through measures to create jobs. And like the $50 billion infrastructure plan pushed by President Obama at Monday's union rally in Milwaukee, unions will call on lawmakers to pass legislation to aid state and local governments and provide incentives for business lending. 

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Union leaders fear business groups will gain an advantage in November if Republicans take over Congress. But they insist big campaign losses will likely sharpen Democratic lawmakers' plans next Congress rather than blunt them.

“It may make them more focused,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, adding an implicit slap to the Democrats of the 111th Congress, saying, “It may make them come up with an agenda and stick to it.”

Union officials cite several bills as having a good chance of passing in the next Congress, including the surface transportation reauthorization bill, legislation to help rebuild water sanitation infrastructure and a new Federal Aviation Administration bill.

In the past, these bills have moved forward with wide bipartisan support, but they have stalled this year. Labor leaders argue all of these bills would create jobs if passed. 

“Hopefully, that edge of partisanship will be taken off. Those elected to the next Congress should have a higher sense of moving forward on what needs to get done,” said Rod Bennett, assistant to the general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

Labor hopes Republicans will be more encouraged by their greater numbers next year to help govern the nation. But they could still stall on the highway bill and other similar measures after the elections, which union officials say could lead to their own losses by the next election.

“How about being more responsible for your constituents? It is a win to move forward on these investments to rebuild our country,” Bennett said. “If they are seen as playing partisan politics in the next Congress, whatever their numbers are, I think they will be held accountable.”

Even if Congress does flip to the Republicans, unions will still have a Democratic White House close to the labor movement, as Obama made clear Monday in his fiery speech.

The Obama administration has been able to place labor-friendly nominees at the National Labor Relations Board. They also have affected a significant rule change at the National Mediation Board that will likely increase unionization at several airlines.

Nevertheless, there is also a realization among some labor officials that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — who has done an “incredible job,” according to Trumka — will not have much room to maneuver next year.

Several conservative Democrats, such as Reps. Bobby Bright (D-Ala.) and Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), who often do not vote along the party line, have good odds of returning to Capitol Hill next year. That should leave in place the ongoing friction between the conservative and liberal ends of the House Democratic caucus.

“You will have a number of [conservative Democrats] that will come back for the next Congress … There will be a dynamic tension between the two,” said Larry Scanlon, political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Pelosi will have to hold an even tighter line on her members in the next session to move forward on labor’s agenda.

“She has had the ability of letting people walk on votes. That is something that will be missing,” Scanlon said.

One of labor’s priorities that will likely be squeezed out is the Employee Free Choice Act.

This Congress, the union organizing bill was unable to find the votes in the Senate after being heavily lobbied against by business associations. Its odds of passage next Congress look even bleaker after expected Democratic election losses.

“I can’t believe there is anyone out there who thinks the Employee Free Choice Act can be passed the way it was originally written. On the other hand, there has got to be labor law reform,” Scanlon said.

One possibility the union official offered is having the next Congress pass more putative damages for labor law violations by employers.

“You can set up a new statute and new rules for giving people a fair shot on whether they want to join a union or not,” Scanlon said.