President shies away from union protests in Wisconsin and other states

By Sam Hananel

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 12 2011 11:32 p.m. MST

Thousands of pro-labor protesters rallied at the Wisconsin Capitol Saturday, March 12, 2011, in Madison, Wis., vowing to fight back after the state's Republican governor signed into law a controversial bill that eliminates most union rights for public employees.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Union leaders urged Vice President Joe Biden during a White House meeting last month to go to Wisconsin and rally the faithful in their fight against Gov. Scott Walker's move to curtail collective bargaining rights for most public employees.

Request rebuffed, they asked for Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

So far, however, the White House has stayed away from any trips to Madison, the state capital, or other states in the throes of union battles. The Obama administration is treading carefully on the contentious political issue that has led to a national debate over the power that public sector unions wield in negotiating wages and benefits.

A few labor leaders have complained openly that President Barack Obama is ignoring a campaign pledge he made to stand with unions; most others say his public comments have been powerful enough.

The stakes are high as Obama looks toward a grueling re-election campaign. Republicans have begun airing television ads linking Obama to "union bosses" standing in the way of budget cuts in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states.

As a candidate, Obama seemed to promise more to organized labor, among the Democratic Party's most loyal constituencies.

"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," Obama said at a speech in 2007. "I'll walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner."

Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, the nation's largest nurses union, called Obama "largely a bystander" in the debate over collective bargaining. "I think we're feeling a sense of betrayal from him and not liking it much," she said.

Doug Schoen, a Democratic political strategist, said Obama's strategy seems to be "keep your distance, avoid direct engagement, say most of the right things most of the time, and hope for resolution through sources other than your own."

Walker on Friday signed a bill that strips most collective bargaining rights from the state's public workers, except police and firefighters. The measure passed the Legislature following more than three weeks of protests that drew tens of thousands of people to the state Capitol in opposition. The governor had announced his plan on Feb. 11, saying his state was broke and there was no point negotiating with the unions when there was nothing to offer.

The request for Biden to travel to Wisconsin came from Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, according to two union officials familiar with the Feb. 24 meeting. The officials requested anonymity because the meeting was private.

Five days later, during the AFL-CIO winter meeting, McEntee told Obama senior adviser David Plouffe that unions wanted more than words, the officials said. McEntee told Plouffe they wanted a high-profile emissary to stand with protesters to show that the president was by their side.

A spokesman for McEntee, Gregory King, declined comment on the substance of the private meetings, but said the union is "pleased with the support we've received from the Obama administration."

Biden's press secretary, Elizabeth Alexander, declined to elaborate on Biden's discussions with union leaders or say why he had not gone to Madison. She said Biden was "obviously very supportive" of labor, had a long history of fighting for collective bargaining rights and, along with Obama, has been "very involved in what has been going on in Wisconsin both privately and publicly from day one."

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