Was Obama’s Win Really a Victory for Unions?

After suffering almost two years of ramped up union-busting, the labor movement came out swinging in the recent elections. It swung its hardest in swing states like Ohio , delivering the 2012 presidential election to President Obama and propelling other labor-endorsed candidates to office.

Labor’s decisive role in reelecting Obama and boosting dozens of other Democrats in key races was acknowledged in the national press. And it was acknowledged by labor.

The day after the election, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said it was the labor unions that gave Ohio , Wisconsin and Nevada to the president. After four years of repeated setbacks and betrayals by the Obama administration, unions reportedly spent up to $400 million on the elections this year.

And according to the AFL-CIO, thousands of volunteers in its affiliate unions knocked on more than 10 million doors nationwide in support of Obama and other labor-backed candidates. SEIU members knocked on another 5 million doors and, according to SEIU president Mary Kay Henry, the organization had 100,000 volunteers across the country as Election Day drew near.

So now the 400-million-dollar question: what does organized labor get in return for its effective ground game to reelect a president who has so often been a disappointment for unions?

Certainly, outside of the presidential race, unions helped carry progressives to the Senate like Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin . Labor also helped Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown defend his seat while defeating a California ballot measure that would have silenced the political voice of unions.

At the presidential level, labor was pivotal to the resounding electoral rejection of the Romney-Ryan agenda. For now, the threat of a national right-to-work law championed by the White House has been beaten back. Attacks on workers and the poor by way of spending cuts will continue, but at least the austerity on steroids that the Republicans had in mind won’t take hold. And there will be no presidential bashing of an entire population for believing it is entitled to certain things it has paid for.

Romney’s loss was indeed a win for labor – as it was for women, immigrants, people of color, the LGBT community, and senior citizens. But was Obama’s victory a win for unions?

Unlike in 2008, labor unions weren’t telling their membership to reelect Obama and other Democrats in order to win new ground, like the labor-backed Employee Free Choice Act of 2008 which would have made it easier for workers to unionize. Instead, labor mobilized its ranks for Obama to defend the ground it still has after two years of scorched-earth attacks on workers. Compared to the enthusiasm of 2008, labor’s electoral push in 2012 was motivated more by the desire to keep Mitt Romney out of the White House than to keep Obama in it.

And this was a sweet deal for the president. Obama could count on unions to fire up their vast get-out-the-vote operations against Romney without feeling the need to extend any empty promises to the labor movement.

Of course, there were some exceptions. Unions like the United Auto Workers and the Steelworkers campaigned more heavily on a pro-Obama message. But overall, labor’s rekindled loyalty to Obama was borne out of its rightful distain for the alternative and the fear of a Romney presidency.

Something did change after Election Day, though. When it was clear that unions could take credit for playing such a huge, if not decisive, role in Obama’s reelection, labor leaders spoke with a little more boldness.

“One thing that we’re doing different than we’ve ever done before is we’re not dismantling our program today,” Trumka told Salon.com reporter Josh Eidelson after the election. The AFL-CIO head said the federation would move “from electoral politics to advocacy, and from advocacy to accountability,” reaffirming a shift to aggressively defend Social Security and Medicare.

Trumka also said something after the victory that was absent from labor’s get-out-the-vote messaging in the months leading up to the election.

“We’re going to work to make sure that those broken labor laws get fixed because when workers have a voice on a job, it improves their lives, and it improves the economy as a whole,” said Trumka. “I’m not going to say the Employee Free Choice Act, but something that is comprehensive, that fixes the nation’s broken labor laws.” Trumka expressed optimism that labor law reform could be achieved in Congress during Obama’s second term.

Is this just the fleeting swagger of a union leader fired up after an election victory? Probably.

Obama has already made it clear that striking a “grand bargain” with Republicans to cut the deficit by $4 trillion is his top priority. If deficit hawks in both parties have their way, such a deal to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” will almost certainly include significant cuts and changes to Social Security and Medicare.

If labor leaders plan to make good on their promise to lead the charge in defense of these programs, it’s hard to imagine how they will also lead the kind of grassroots mobilization needed to win any substantive labor reform. And it’s even more doubtful that Obama will lift a finger in support of such an effort.

To be sure, there are many reasons for the labor movement to be relieved by Romney’s loss in the election. Romney was a boss’s boss – the epitome of the filthy rich 1 percent and its anti-worker animus.

As a private equity tycoon, Romney’s firm, Bain Capital, specialized in sucking companies dry and leaving workers out in the cold. He proudly championed a business model of shipping jobs overseas. Romney also supported Indiana ’s right-to-work law, condemned Chicago teachers for going on strike, and said the National Labor Relations Board was stacked with “union stooges.”

Unions can at least look to Obama’s signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act for women, or his ostensibly union-friendly appointments to the NLRB. And there was also his rescue of the auto industry that saved thousands of union jobs, though workers took enormous concessions as part of that deal.

But at least these modest pro-labor moves by Obama help to distract from his administration’s many offenses against working-class priorities. Those include: a health care reform law that further entrenches the power of private insurance companies; the refusal to declare a moratorium on home foreclosures affecting millions of working people; the passage of anti-labor free trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama; a pay freeze for federal workers; the largest cut in discretionary spending in 50 years; a record number of deportations of undocumented workers; concerted attacks on public education and teachers unions through corporate education “reform”; an FAA reauthorization bill that makes it more difficult for airline workers to organize; the failure to pass substantial financial reform to reign in Wall Street’s too-big-to-fail abuses and speculation schemes; the failure to pass a national jobs program; and, of course, the refusal to push for the now moribund Employee Free Choice Act.

And then there was the silence.

As the right to collective bargaining was thrust in crosshairs of the billionaire Koch brothers and their tea party allies in statehouses around the country, Obama had little if anything to say in defense of labor. Fighting for their very survival, unions hoped for stronger advocacy from the White House, but Obama chose instead to stay above the fray – or below it.

Nevertheless, the alternative in this election was worse. And in every election cycle, this is the perennial two-party trap that saps the political strength of unions, however impressive their boots-on-the-ground electoral operations may be. Democrats know this and take full advantage of the lesser-evil politics driving millions of voters – who expect little in return – into their arms every four years.

Still, many liberals in the labor movement insist that the president is certain to be more aggressive in pursuing pro-labor policies in his second term, now freed from the political constraints of reelection that so repressed his progressive spirit during the first four years. A similar expectation prevailed among many on the left in the 1990s when Bill Clinton was running for reelection.

Yet it never happened. Clinton’s presidency remained defined by “ending welfare as we know it,” signing the anti-worker NAFTA trade deal, intensifying the war on drugs and prison expansion, and creating policies like “don’t ask, don’t tell” along with signing the Defense of Marriage Act.

This time around, Obama is already pursuing a deal with Republicans which, at best, will include modest tax increases on the wealthy that will be dwarfed by more spending cuts for workers. The president has also said he will lower corporate tax rates, which are effectively at the lowest level they’ve been in history.

Outside of Washington , workers continue to face the bludgeon of corporate greed. At Hostess, the iconic maker of Twinkies and other baked snacks, management used the company as its own personal piggy bank for speculative activity, driving the business into bankruptcy and extracting huge concessions from its unionized workforce.

Last week, after the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco and Grain Millers International Union decided to draw the line and strike, Hostess said it would liquidate, leaving 18,500 workers jobless while blaming unions for the company’s failure. Mediation may save the company for now, but its bakers and Teamster truck drivers will suffer a steep drop in pay and benefits.

Despite the dire state of the working class and the routine betrayals committed by its supposed “allies” in Washington , there is another part of the story – and it involves a different kind of ground game in the field of grassroots struggle.

That struggle saw 45,000 Verizon workers striking against corporate greed last year and a militant showdown of Longshore workers against a shipping conglomerate in the Pacific Northwest . It summoned thousands of union supporters to state capitals in Wisconsin and Ohio , occupying buildings and pushing back against union-busting laws. It gave birth to a global movement of the 99 percent that rocked cities around the country and put economic inequality at the center of national consciousness.

Beyond the U.S. , it ignited a sweeping fightback in Europe with waves of general strikes against austerity. It also showed how 26,000 Chicago teachers could organize and win an historic strike against a cut-throat anti-union mayor, striking a blow against the corporate school “reform” agenda.

And now, that struggle has led to an unprecedented campaign of protests and strikes among retail and warehouse workers who have long suffered in the shadows of Wal-Mart’s fiercely anti-union juggernaut.

In spite of the union movement’s strong ground game on Election Day, Obama and the Democrats will continue to faithfully carry the torch of austerity while Republicans try to stoke the flames. Unionists and the workers’ movement as a whole must use its weight to push back against the deepening anti-worker assaults orchestrated in Washington .

But we also have to invest in the other ground game – the game being played out on the shop floor and in the streets. With enough practice, that’s a game the working class has a better chance at winning.

Brian Tierney is a freelance labor journalist in Washington, DC. Read more of his work at Subterranean Dispatches, where this article first appeared.