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Relationship between unions and Dems cooling?

September 06, 2012|By Patt Morrison
  • Supporters wave signs during Bob King's address at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. King is president of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America.
Supporters wave signs during Bob King's address at the Democratic… (Mladen Antonov / AFP / Getty…)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In the hours BBC (Before Bill Clinton's big speech), large themes were evoked at the Democratic National Convention here. Corporate and union leaders followed one another onto the platform to invite Americans to their political bromance of business and labor working hand-in-work-glove.

On Labor Day itself, as men and women in yellow "Teamsters for Obama" T-shirts were strolling around the hall, I was talking to my colleague Matea Gold, who covers politics and money, about unions being at a soul-searching crossroads.

I sense that the economic crisis could threaten to open up different fronts in union solidarity, between the heretofore twinned public and private unions, and perhaps even between Democrats and unions.

VIDEO: Watch the DNC speeches

The fact that the market plunge has hit pension investment funds hard, forcing cities and counties to make up the difference in public employee pension commitments out of local budgets, is upsetting the apple cart on some political partnerships.

Antonio Villaraigosa, in his last year as mayor, says he is having a road-to-Damascus moment about teacher and public employee pensions, and realizes that unless Democrats are willing to steer the bus toward pension changes, the Republicans will take the wheel.

And I wonder whether a rift will emerge between public employee unions -- under attack by Republicans in states such as Wisconsin and being scrutinized by some middle-of-the-road voters -- and private corporate unions like the auto workers, whose ranks are largely thinning (except for the SEIU, which is the fastest growing union around, with a strong and emerging Latino membership).

PHOTOS: Scenes from the DNC

The unions aren't divorcing the Democrats, but maybe the relationship is cooling; the rank and file may feel differently than union leadership, and there's the risk some union members may stay at home on election day. And at a moment when "super PAC" cash and secret "dark money" and Citizens United-enabled dough is pouring into GOP coffers, unions may decide to spend their money more on organizing and shoring up membership than on political campaigns.

California’s Legislature just passed pension reform legislation, but union supporters have had a hard time selling the fact that there’s a big difference between the average public employee pension, which runs in the $30,000-ish range, and the "pension spikers" whose six-figure retirement dough gets all the attention. We invariably legislate for the exception and not the rule.

And so far, there’s been a greater reluctance on the part of Republicans to go after generous law enforcement and fire pensions and retirement plans, which are the drivers of much of the huge growth in pension obligations.

Then there's always the question: Where else does labor have to go? To Republicans? And does that mean that unions feel resentful and taken for granted by Democrats, who are indignant that unions shouldn’t appreciate all that Democrats have done for them?

Maybe after the election it’ll be time for couples counseling…

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Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

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