(Bloomberg Politics) — In 2008, Steve Abbott fell for Barack Obama. “Hope and change—I believed that hook, line and sinker,” says Abbott, whose Iowa caucus site was switched from a library to a gym because of an influx of Obama supporters.
Seven years later, Abbott, who leads the Iowa state council of the Communications Workers of America, is warring against the president, trying to stymie an Obama trade deal he believes will devastate organized labor. This summer, when Hillary Clinton wouldn’t take up that cause, he decided to back Bernie Sanders. After Obama, he says, “The lack of a commitment is a red flag.”
“People feel betrayed by President Obama,” agrees Mark Cooper, the president of the South Central Iowa Federation of Labor. “I think that’s why Bernie’s getting the traction he has.”
For a swathe of local union activists and national labor leaders, the Obama experience casts a queasy shadow over the 2016 race. The president, whom organized labor went all out to elect and re-elect, has done big things that unions wanted—like overhauling health care and financial regulation, assisting reeling auto giants, and moving to expand the reach of overtime. At least as important, union leaders believe his veto pen has been a bulwark, stopping congressional Republicans from doing nationally what Scott Walker did in Wisconsin.
But Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, which unions contend endangers jobs, wages, and regulations, is only the latest in a series of bitter disappointments for organized labor, from the labor law reform the president showed little interest in fighting for, to the union-sought changes in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) that he rebuffed, to safety regulations that were scrapped or languished, to his stances on energy, education reform, and Social Security.
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“I don’t think people want a third term of Obama, which is what the Hillary candidacy represents,” says National Nurses United executive director RoseAnn DeMoro, whose union is hosting a “Brunch with Bernie” Monday afternoon. Union leaders who embrace Clinton without getting commitments on issues like trade, argues DeMoro, are repeating the same mistakes made with Obama. “Why would she have to change anything,” she asks, “because she’s saying nothing, and they’re saying, ‘Go Hillary!’”
“The last seven or eight years has just hardened me up and told me you can’t play the game,” says Amalgamated Transit Union president Larry Hanley, who endorsed Clinton in the 2008 primary. Like DeMoro, he believes unions have been too focused on getting access to politicians and not enough on building a mass movement that can keep them from straying. Interviewed in his office last month, he gestured at the wall: “There’s my picture with Obama at the Christmas party, but I didn’t get a f–king thing done. But nothing’s happened—the country’s still going to hell.”
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“I think the lesson we got out of this administration in terms of Hillary Clinton is: Slow down,” says Greg Junemann, the president of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, who compares endorsing a candidate before they’ve made concrete commitments to tipping a cab driver before they’ve given you a ride. “Look at the record on labor—don’t just listen to the speech.”