Not one 'union label' anymore as public, private sector unions diverge

Growing tension between President Obama and unions, and rifts within unions, create opportunity for Republicans to attract disaffected workers interested in economy, jobs, and growth. Could the disharmony and dissatisfaction create a Reagan moment for the GOP?

All is not placid in Camp Obama. For more than a century, Democratic Party power has been based on private-sector unions and their workers—voters who actually produce such things as cars and steel. But in recent years that political power also has been strengthened by the rise of government-worker unions and environmental groups, which are less about productivity and more about spending and policy. Tension between the two kinds of union factions was inevitable, and now is coming to the fore in President Obama’s re-election bid.

The latest rift is between the president and the United Mine Workers union, part of the AFL-CIO. UMW solidarity for the president is essential for him to win in such battleground states as West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The UMW isn’t happy that Obama administration environmentalists are taking aim at the coal industry.

UMW President Cecil Roberts recently was interviewed on the West Virginia Metro News Talkline radio show. Referring to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, a radical anti-coal environmentalist, Roberts said, “The Navy SEALs shot Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and Lisa Jackson shot us in Washington.”

Ouch. He added, “Coal is the fastest growing energy source in the world and they’ve decided, at the, ‘well, we’re going to control what goes into the atmosphere worldwide by halting the construction of coal-fired facilities in the United States…. ’ [I]t is just devastating for our economy.”

The George Soros-funded Think Progress blog called Roberts’ charge “preposterous.”  As Cliff Kincaid, director of Accuracy in Media watchdog group, noted in GOPUSA, the Obama-connected Think Progress exists “to punish anyone—even Democrats—who speak ill of the president or his policies.”

The UMW flap is not an isolated event. In January, the AFL-CIO got into a skirmish with the administration when the president rejected the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would have brought Canadian oil to the Gulf of Mexico and created up to 20,000 jobs. While not directly criticizing Obama, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, “The AFL-CIO has not taken a position on the Keystone pipeline—unions don’t agree among ourselves.” He added, “We cannot have a trust-building conversation about it unless opponents of the pipeline recognize that construction jobs are real jobs—good jobs—and supporters of the pipeline recognize that tar sands oil raises real issues in terms of climate change.”

In addition to the UMW, the AFL’s member unions include the American Federation of Government Employees. More regulation and power for the government is coming to mean more members and power for the AFGE—but fewer jobs for the private sector, including members of the UMW.

Other unions are seeing a direct division between the union bosses, whose rhetoric supports Obama, and their rank and file members, who are on the front lines of a weak job market. “There’s an intramural tension between environmentalists and Big Labor,” Will Collins told us, the  deputy legal information director for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. He said that the leadership of the United Auto Workers, the United Steelworkers, the Service Employees International Union and other unions have “endorsed the administration’s position” on the environment and jobs. He pointed to a 2010 poll for National Right to Work by longtime pollster Frank Luntz which found a chasm between the workers and the union bosses. Funding by unions for left-wing Democratic candidates in the mid-term elections that year was opposed by 60 percent of workers.

“This is one more example of that gulf between the politicized union hierarchy and the union members,” Collins said of the division over environmentalists killing good jobs.

Three decades ago, a similar division led the “Reagan Democrats”—working union members—to help give the Gipper two landslide victories against jobs-killing Democratic opponents. If Republicans are savvy enough to understand the opportunity and make the effort to attract union workers again in 2012, it is they who will be singing the Democrats’ old standby, “Happy Days Are Here Again.”