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The Winter of Labor’s Discontent

Berry Craig: But it's getting harder for me to defend Obama when my union brothers and sisters -- who also voted and worked for him -- say he's all but surrendered to the GOP. I'm disappointed in the president. They're downright mad.

A recent Miami Herald political cartoon shows President Barack Obama playing poker with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.

obama playing poker

"...I fold," the President says to the dealer. "He hasn't finished dealing the cards yet," Boehner chimes in.

The cartoon hit home with this union card-carrying Hubert Humphrey Democrat. I didn't just vote for Obama. I campaigned for him -- and against McConnell -- in my corner of Kentucky.

But it's getting harder for me defend Obama when my union brothers and sisters -- who also voted and worked for him -- say he's all but surrendered to the GOP. I'm disappointed in the president. They're downright mad.

Obama won with a ton of union support. High hopes for him have faded into the winter of our discontent.

Visit almost any union hall, and not just in the Bluegrass State. You'll likely get an earful: "Obama caved on the Employee Free Choice Act," "Obama wimped out on single payer health care and the Bush tax cuts for rich people," "Obama's proof that corporate interests run both parties."

Union members expect the shaft from Republicans. After all, they've been waging holy war against us for years.

“When you go back and look at history, history will tell you that the Democrats ramrodded every meaningful piece of legislation for the benefit of working people,” said J.R. Gray, who recently stepped down as Kentucky ’s labor secretary.

Gray, a keen student of labor history, meant the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's program to fight the Great Depression. The New Deal included the single most important labor law in U.S. history: the 1935 Wagner Act. It guaranteed workers the right to unionize and required employers to recognize unions.

Thus, Roosevelt has been called our first pro-labor president. On the campaign trail, Sen. Obama sounded like another FDR.

"It's time we had a president who didn't choke when he said the word union," he told the 2007 Change to Win convention.

Also in his speech, Obama said he was helping lead the fight for the Employee Free Choice Act, potentially the biggest boon for unions since the Wagner Act. He promised as president he wouldn't "just wait for the bill to reach my desk. I will work actively as part of my agenda to make sure that it reaches my desk."

The EFCA missed Obama's desk by a mile. With the Republicans takeover in the House, the bill won't arrive in the Oval Office anytime soon. (The president's supporters protest that EFCA had no chance because the Republicans would have filibustered the measure to death in the Senate.)

So where do union members go from here?

Should we fight harder than ever to bring the Democratic party back to its New Deal roots? What if we do and fail?

Should we stick with the Democrats because half a loaf from them is better than no loaf at all -- not even crumbs -- from the Republicans? Should we start a labor party even though every attempt to found such a party has fallen through?

Oh, the Republicans would love to see us forsake the Democrats for a labor party. They figure all that would do is splinter the Democratic party.

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On the other hand, as long as the Democrats know labor has no place else to go politically, they'll act accordingly. True, some Democratic politicians are still our friends. But it seems a growing number of Democrats figure lip service to unions is enough. Still others, notably the Blue Dogs -- a breed common in Kentucky and other Red States -- don't even bother with lip service. They often side with the Republicans on union issues.

Yet it must be said that unions could be in worse shape. John McCain could be in the White House. The Republicans could be top dogs in the Senate and the House.

Anyway, it may not matter to union members who feel alienated and abandoned, but our movement has been here before. Union members were just as angry, maybe angrier, in the late 19th century. That was the era of the Robber Barons, one of whom famously said the "...rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for -- not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country."

Union-busting was bipartisan. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, sent federal troops to crush the great railroad strike. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, smashed the Pullman strike with U.S. soldiers.

Union pioneer Eugene V. Debs left the Democratic Party over the Pullman strike. Jailed for supporting the strike, Debs became a Socialist.

Many union members followed Debs into the Socialist party. Socialists got elected in some places – even to Congress.

Debs ran for president on the Socialist ticket four times. He collected 901,551 votes in 1912. Imprisoned in 1918 for opposing World War I – Debs said it was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight – he received 913,693 votes in 1920, when he was still behind bars.

But Debs came nowhere close to getting elected. He didn't win a single electoral vote. By the 1920s, the Socialist party was in steep decline.

In the 1930s, FDR made the Democrats the pro-labor party. But the Democrats have never been a true labor party like the ones in Great Britain , Norway , the Netherlands and in other countries. (Humphrey was a big fan of those parties and so am I.)

Yet for many years, union members knew they could count on many Democrats like Humphrey, a senator and vice president from Minnesota. “ America is a living testimonial to what free men and women, organized in free democratic trade unions can do to make a better life,” he said in one of his best-known speeches.

Humphrey matched his words with deeds. He had one of the best labor voting records in history.

Sadly, Humphrey Democrats are becoming scarce. They're all but extinct in Red States like Kentucky where a lot of Democrats are Republicans at heart. I've heard them called "DINOs," or "Democrats In Name Only."

Often as not, when union members go to the polls in Kentucky -- and elsewhere -- our choice is between a flat-out, union-hating Republican and a Democrat who might not hurt us, but probably won't help us much either.

Republicans like McConnell, Boehner and McCain make no bones about their opposition to just about everything unions stand for. The EFCA topped their hit list.

McConnell, Boehner and McCain have some of the worst-ever union voting records. (Obama had one of the best when he was a senator.)

Berry Craig

Yet the fact that unions would be in sorrier shape with a President McCain and a Senate Majority Leader McConnell doesn't get Obama out of the doghouse with a growing host of union members. Democratic President Harry Truman's nickname was "Give 'em hell Harry." Plenty of union members are convinced Obama won't even give the GOP heck.

Berry Craig