Unions open coffers as Senate teeters

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Organized labor is pouring millions of dollars into congressional campaign coffers, as unions press to stave off a Senate flip this fall that could spell disaster for its policy agenda during the final years of the Obama administration.

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On issues ranging from collective bargaining to immigration to worker protections, union officials, advocates and experts say GOP control of the upper chamber could jeopardize what has become a period of significant progress for the labor movement.

“There’s a lot of room for mischief in a Senate that’s under Republican leadership,” said William Spriggs, chief economist for the AFL-CIO.

After an often-rocky relationship with Washington’s Democrats in President Obama’s first term, unions had reason to celebrate this Labor Day.

President Obama has in recent months sought to counter congressional gridlock on labor issues with aggressive use of executive power, ordering up regulations to extend overtime pay to some workers and increase the minimum wage for others.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), meanwhile, has handed labor important preliminary victories, in one case allowing workers to form “micro-unions” within companies, and in another approving labor grievances against fast food corporations, rather than just their franchisees.

But the debate continues to swirl around all of those and myriad other labor and workforce issues on the horizon. A Republican Senate majority would give business groups and their allies in Congress a new arsenal of weapons in their fight against the labor movement’s agenda.

Chief among them would be the power of the purse. With both the House and Senate appropriations committees under GOP control, Republicans could insert language in spending bills withholding federal funding for the implementation of any number of executive branch initiatives.

The targets could include forthcoming regulations that would update the parameters of overtime pay to cover millions more workers, a rule raising the minimum wage for federal contractors and forthcoming restrictions meant to protect against discrimination in the workplace.

“You can imagine riders that will be written into omnibus bills to block all of them,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “The Republicans are opposed to everything the Labor Department has announced.”

Wrapped into massive “must-pass” spending bills, the policy riders could present Obama with a difficult choice between keeping agencies funded and protecting his prized initiatives.

“Does he want to shut down the government over these issues?” said Eisenbrey. “I don’t know.”

GOP control of both chambers of Congress could also allow Republicans to legislate toward beating back labor’s agenda, said Michael Lotito, an employment and labor attorney and co-chairman of Littler Mendelson's Workplace Policy Institute.

For instance, lawmakers could seek to counter a highly anticipated NLRB rule allowing for speedier union elections by imposing a minimum 35-day election process, Lotito ventured.

A Republican Senate majority could also greenlight a slate of bills designed to tamp down on agency rule-making authority and give Congress more sway over regulations. The House has repeatedly passed such legislation only to see it die in the Democratic Senate.

Obama would of course retain veto power if the Senate changes hands, but using it to reject the wishes of a Congress unified against him could become increasingly problematic in the waning months of his administration.

“It puts the president in a potentially difficult situation as he becomes more and more of a lame duck,” Lotito said.

Republican control of the Senate could also mean a forceful congressional backlash against the Obama administration’s expected executive actions this fall on immigration reform — a top labor priority.

While leading industry-backed groups support the immigration legislation before Congress, many Republican lawmakers have warned that unilateral action would be executive overreach.

GOP control would also empower Republicans on key Senate panels, including the Health Committee, where the gavel would pass from retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a stalwart union defender, to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) a champion of pro-business causes.

That would allow Republicans to convene hearings and select witnesses to testify on any number of issues, giving opponents of the labor agenda an prominent platform.

Faced with the possibility of such a dramatic shift in the political landscape, labor groups have injected more than $70 million dollars into the current election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).

Among the biggest spenders is the powerful AFL-CIO, a federation representing scores of unions. The group has spent more than $5.7 million to date, according to the center.

AFL-CIO officials say their support is linked to candidates’ positions on labor and workforce issues, not party affiliation. But the vast majority of candidates backed by the group are Democrats.

“We wish that the Republican Party were not an enemy of working people, but too often, and too much of it, currently is,” AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser said.

Hauser said the federation intends to play an influential role in several races that could decide Senate control, including contests in Iowa, Colorado, Michigan and Alaska.

While he acknowledged that Republicans are increasingly optimistic about their 2014 chances, Hauser stressed that the electoral map looks to be far more favorable for Democrats two years from now, with more “purple state” Republicans up for reelection.

“Two-thousand-sixteen is going to suggest to Republicans that they need to get right with working people on minimum wage and other issues,” he said.

Unions are hopeful about the future, especially given the nation’s growing number of labor-friendly Latino voters. Spriggs, the AFL-CIO economist, noted a slight uptick last year in U.S. union membership.

The positive outlook follows difficult years for the labor movement.

The percentage of American workers in unions had declined throughout Obama’s first term, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

At the same time, labor groups voiced frustration that the president didn’t push harder for the Employee Free Choice Act, often called "card check" by business groups, and were less than thrilled with parts of the Affordable Care Act.

But their support for Obama’s reelection was rewarded in his second term, with the flurry of Labor Department efforts and a labor board that has delivered several decisions and rules favorable to their agenda.

It is Election Day that could matter most to those on the frontlines of the ongoing struggle between business and labor.

Regardless of the result, labor officials say they remain hopeful for support on issues including immigration, the minimum wage and infrastructure spending. But in the short term, GOP control of the Senate would not bode well for labor’s fortunes over the Obama administration’s waning days.

“Nothing’s forever,” Eisenbrey said. “But certainly, for those two years, it’s a pretty bleak picture.”