Ties between Obama and labor tested

President Barack Obama’s address to the AFL-CIO on Tuesday will shed light on a precarious friendship that will be tested in the near future.

Though the president is expected to celebrate his relationship with unions that fervently supported his 2008 campaign, differences between Obama and organized labor will be at the forefront during his address at the AFL-CIO’s convention.

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On healthcare, Obama has voiced support for a public insurance option but is not insisting on one. Organized labor wants a public option to drive down healthcare costs, and the AFL-CIO is expected to approve a resolution that backs a government insurance plan.

Obama supports a card-check bill that would make it easier for unions to organize, but has not thrown his weight into the congressional debate to force Congress to move on it more quickly.

Labor’s relationship with Obama will be further tested next year if the White House seeks to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, or if it seeks congressional approval for several pending trade agreements that are opposed by unions.

Publicly, labor officials say they are just happy to have a seat at the table after being shut out of the White House during former President George W. Bush’s eight years in office.

“The access and the responsiveness have just been phenomenal,” said Kevin O’Connor, head of government relations for the International Association of Fire Fighters. He said the Obama administration is always willing to take advice from labor groups, and that even if Obama sometimes comes down against labor, it is a reasoned decision.

“Labor will not always get its way with any administration, Democrat or Republican. But having a seat at the table is the biggest difference from the Bush years,” O’Connor said.

But when incoming AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka makes his acceptance speech on Wednesday, he will make it clear that the union will hold all

Democratic politicians — including Obama — accountable if they do not live up to promises to support a public health insurance option and to win passage of the card-check bill.

“He’s going to say we’re going to hold the politicians we’ve elected accountable more than we have in the past,” an aide to Trumka said.

Trumka believes the president supports labor on key issues, but an aide warned there “will be consequences” for politicians in any office who say one thing and do another.

Though membership in unions has fallen, labor continues to be a key part of the Democratic political machine and will be important to Democratic fortunes in 2010. Still, unions are unlikely to support Obama’s opponent in 2012 if the president seeks reelection.

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a center-left think tank, said that Obama will continue to enjoy a honeymoon with labor because of the memories of the last administration and the political realities of the near future.

“There is going to be a great deal of deference toward the president as he tries to maneuver around ideological and partisan obstacles to governing,” Marshall said.

He added that union leaders are likely to be more pragmatic than some progressive political groups.

“Unlike some of the activists on the left, labor is more realistic. They realize they are part of a governing coalition and they want to stay in that tent,” Marshall said.

Labor officials credit Obama with saying all the right things. He has offered personal support for the public health insurance option and a provision in the card-check bill that would eliminate an employer’s right to demand a secret-ballot election to determine union representation, even if he has not put the full weight of his office behind either effort.

On Labor Day, Obama attended an Ohio AFL-CIO picnic and vowed to support the card-check bill, which is fiercely opposed by business groups, in an effort “to level the playing field so it’s easier for employees who want a union to form a union.”

“Nothing wrong with that. Because when labor is strong, America is strong,” Obama said to raucous applause. “When we all stand together, we all rise together.”

So far, Obama has certainly been good to labor.

The first piece of legislation he signed as president was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a labor priority that strengthened protections for women’s pay.

The $787 billion economic stimulus package included funding geared toward rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, expanding clean energy technology and maintaining schools — all key labor priorities.

Obama also has signed executive orders to strengthen worker protections.

Obama’s loyalty to labor has sometimes complicated his affairs. His decision to impose tariffs on Chinese tires in response to a petition from the United Steelworkers union has set off a firestorm with China, the largest U.S. trading partner and a rising global power. It could make for some awkward conversations next week when Obama hosts leaders from China and other countries at a summit in Pittsburgh.

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As his presidency goes forward, he’s likely to come up against more friction with labor unions.

On immigration, Obama has supported a temporary-worker program that is a problem for some unions, while on trade, his administration has said it wants to find a way forward for pending deals with Panama and Colombia.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) on Monday said the decision to impose tariffs on Chinese tires could help move trade agreements forward by giving members of Congress certainty that trade laws will be enforced.

But that doesn’t mean unions are likely to support the pending trade deals.

“Are unions going to turn around to support the trade agreements with Panama and Colombia? Not a chance,” said Bill Reinsch, a former Commerce undersecretary in the Clinton administration and president of the pro-trade National Foreign Trade Council. “There will clearly be bumps down the road.”