PHILADELPHIA,- Three years ago, almost to the day, candidate Barack Obama told an AFL-CIO convention here, "It’s time we had a president who didn’t choke saying the word ‘union.’"
Amid feverish "Yes we can!" chants, he threw raw meat that the crowd wanted: support for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).
"I will make it the law of the land when I’m president of the United States," Obama promised.
Battling union skeptics of Obama, Bill George, then president of Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO, whispered: "We will need to do an all-out effort to educate our members, that he will make card check" — slang for EFCA — "happen for working families, to win this in November."
Made where organized labor began, in 1827 behind Independence Hall, that promise has not been kept. It wasn’t even brought up in the 111th Congress.
The last time "card check" saw life was in 2007, when it passed the House but died in the Senate.
Democrats count on unions in every election. Last fall’s midterm exit polling showed turnout by households with at least one union voter was down a staggering 6 points from the 2006 midterm.
That contributed to Democrats’ thrashing in local, state and federal races across the country, leaving Democrats wondering how to re-energize their union base.
Enter Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin: By taking on public-sector unions, he awakened their sleeping masses.
Obama’s campaign arm, the Democratic National Committee/Organizing for America (DNC/OFA), swung into action, building rally turnouts, organizing phone banks, making signs, busing union members from around the country to Wisconsin’s Capitol in matching T-shirts.
Wisconsin Senate Democrats ran away to avoid a budget vote, soon followed by Democrat Indiana state legislators.
"I know the Indiana State Democratic Party has been pouring money into the support of its holdout legislators … camping out in the stronghold of Democratic political refugees, Illinois," says Bert Rockman, Purdue University political science professor.
DNC/OFA is funneling money to state parties in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, he adds.
Have Democrats found their 2012 version of the tea party — something to ramp up their base and independents as GOP governors take on broke state budgets? (They certainly could use something: A Reuters poll late last week showed Obama’s approval rating among independents diving 10 points in a month, to 37 percent.)
"At this point, it’s mainly helping to energize our base," says one respected Democrat strategist. "In Wisconsin in particular, Walker’s overreaching and intransigence is helping with independent voters."
He admits he needs to see more of a national pattern before he can predict a momentum shift toward Democrats among "indies."
An equally respected Republican strategist agrees: "All the polling shifts I have seen thus far reflect Democrat base intensity coming back … the downside with independents will be if we cave in Wisconsin."
Republicans won in 2010 because they had some credibility with independents on fiscal matters.
But if the GOP loses that distinction from Democrats, independents will vote on other issues in 2012 — and that will be bad for the Republican brand.
Republicans must constantly remind voters why their elected officials are having these debates: to prevent government unions from locking governors into irresponsible contracts requiring tax increases.
Yet Republicans cannot be seen as trying to "bust" unions for fun or political gain; independents will back the GOP on this only if they think the motive is correct.
Despite Big Labor’s big love for Obama, he hasn’t passed card-check legislation, nor will he get anywhere near doing so until at least 2013 — if ever — if Republicans maintain their U.S. House and Senate numbers.
He did throw unions a sizable bone, however, by unionizing 43,000 Transportation Security Administration workers last month.
Privately, union leaders still are skittish about Obama, however.
To them, the president’s decision to replace highly respected economist Paul Volcker as head of his economic advisory board with General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt — whose corporation derives 60 percent of its revenue from overseas operations — isn’t all that union-friendly, which might make unions sit out another electoral round.
Tribune-Review Political Reporter