Unions still waiting for Obama to step up 

President Obama has stayed on the sidelines during raging political battles about the role of public employees unions in cash-strapped states, a debate that shows no signs of slowing before the 2012 election and which now has labor leaders pressing for more involvement from the White House on their behalf.

Obama has dispatched Vice President Biden, who has much deeper roots with organized labor, to meet with union leaders to "make sure their rights are protected," mobilized his political organization to work behind the scenes as workers protested in Wisconsin and accused some Republican governors of turning public employees into scapegoats for runaway deficits.

But many say they are still waiting for a more forceful commitment from the president, who relied on the massive mobilization of union members in part to deliver major political victories in the primaries and general election two years ago.

Gino Renne, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994/Municipal and County Government Employees Organization, said the White House has been "disappointingly silent" on union issues.

"Labor put a lot of boots on the ground to help him get elected," Renne said. "We were convinced that he was committed to changing the plight of working families. He has not met my expectations. He's trying to have his cake and eat it, too."

Renne said Obama is attempting to paint himself as an advocate for public employees, while not antagonizing voters who frown on the salaries and benefits guaranteed for union members.

The scope of union influence will be a certain Republican target in the 2012 elections. Advertisements linking the president to organized labor groups are already airing.

And the fallout from Wisconsin -- new life was breathed into the brouhaha when a state judge blocked the Republican bill that limited collective bargaining rights for public employees -- along with other Republican-controlled states looking to follow its lead, has already become a rallying cry for both parties.

Obama has touted the rights of employees to collectively bargain but has not met demands to join union members hand in hand as they protest.

"If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I'm in the White House, I'll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself," then-Sen. Obama said during his 2008 campaign. "I'll walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States. The workers deserve to know that someone's standing with them."

Since then, Obama has encountered a political environment far different from when he took office, where state governments have become awash in red ink and Republican governors, in particular, have targeted public employee unions to reduce their costs and close their budget deficits.

However, the reality is that unions will have to tie their lot to Obama or risk losing more political influence, some observers say.

"The president is probably counting on labor voters being stuck with him as opposed to anti-union Republicans or not voting at all," said John Brehm, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

"Mainstream voters are a fickle lot. They see both Republicans and Democrats having problems with budget issues," he said, adding that the president doesn't want to be viewed as exacerbating budget shortfalls -- particularly in battleground states.


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Brian Hughes

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