By Jim Kuhnhenn and Sam Hananel
WASHINGTON — Organized labor is trying to re-energize and take advantage of the growing backlash from the wave of anti-union sentiment in Wisconsin and more than a dozen other states.
President Barack Obama and his political machine are offering tactical support, eager to repair strained relations with some union leaders upset over his recent overtures to business.
The potent combination has helped fan the huge protests in Wisconsin against a measure that would strip collective bargaining rights from state workers.
The alliance also is sending a warning to other states that are considering the same tactic.
“I think it’s a clear message,” said AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman. “If you take on middle-class people and try to solve the budget crises on their backs, there’s a price to pay. Many thousands of people will be energized to fight back.”
For Obama, stepping into a confrontation with a governor has its risks.
The president is in a struggle of his own to tame spending, and siding with unions may cast him as a partisan even as he talks about setting a new tone in Washington.
For the labor movement, which suffered a bitter split in 2005, the brash moves by GOP lawmakers such as Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., have brought unions together in a way unthinkable a few years ago.
Nearly every major union leader — both public and private sector — has united behind an ambitious $30 million plan to stop anti-labor measures in Wisconsin and 10 other states.
The group at the new “Labor Table” includes AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka working with leaders such as Teamsters President James Hoffa.
Until recently, the two barely were on speaking terms.
“There’s nothing like the possibility of extinction to focus people’s attention,” said former Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., who spent more than a year trying without success to reunify the labor movement.
“They’ve got everything to lose here, and they’re either going to do something or they’re not,” Bonior said.
Congressional Republicans are accusing Obama of trying to muzzle governors who were making efforts to rein in government.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, said Obama was helping fuel “Greece-style” protests in the United States, a reference to the demonstrations that followed Greek efforts to cut government programs.
“His political organization is colluding with special interest allies across the country to demagogue reform-minded governors who are making the tough choices that the president is avoiding,” Boehner said.
The president waded into the fight between Walker and unions when he told a Milwaukee television station that any effort to make it harder for public employees to engage in collective bargaining “seems like more of an assault on unions.”
Obama’s political arm at the Democratic National Committee, Organizing for America, helped mobilize demonstrators in coordination with unions. Democratic Party officials also are watching government-labor disputes in Ohio and Indiana to see if the party should step in there, too.
Such visible support for public sector workers signals an effort by Obama’s organization to smooth a sometimes rocky relationship with some in the labor movement. Unions have sought reassurance from the White House that Obama is not pulling away from them as he ratchets up his overtures to business.
Union leaders have criticized Obama’s proposal to freeze federal wages and they were disappointed that the White House didn’t push harder to pass “card check” legislation when Democrats ran Congress. That measure would have required every employer to recognize a union if a majority of workers signed cards instead of holding secret ballot elections.
Labor is split on Obama’s proposed trade deal with South Korea. The United Auto Workers backs it, but the AFL-CIO and others say it will just lead to more American jobs going overseas.
Unions are among the better organized foot soldiers of the Democratic Party, and party officials are wary of weakening their political motivation.
“I think Democrats here are upholding the right principle,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “Failing to give support to this principle would be a real problem as far as the Democratic constituency is concerned.”
Besides lobbying and public demonstrations, the unions are considering ballot initiatives, costly legal fights and even launching recalls against newly-elected GOP lawmakers. They are planning to seek help from like-minded progressive groups, immigration activists, environmentalists and religious leaders.
They expect momentum from the protests to spill into the 2012 election cycle, when they can try to punish Republicans they accuse of overreaching. Unions are focusing on the states with the most serious attacks and where they have the strongest ability to fight: Florida, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
The blessing of the White House could help mend relations with the American Federation of Teachers, which has criticized Obama’s support of charter schools and teacher merit pay. The group’s Wisconsin affiliate is helping lead the protests in Madison.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan weighed in this past week by promising teachers’ unions during an education summit in Denver that he would stand by them in states where governors have pledged to shut down teachers’ collective bargaining rights. He specifically cited Wisconsin.
The efforts by the administration and Democrats are not without risk.
Obama and the national party are challenging a cost-cutting governor even as Obama comes under attack for not trimming enough in the federal budget. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday that Obama was not trying to undermine efforts to rein in state spending, but was only objecting to approaches that would curtail bargaining rights.
With unemployment at 9 percent, the public is not particularly sympathetic to public sector employees.
“On the politics, we worry that this will be seen less as an attempt to help the middle class broadly and more as an attempt to help a union or an interest group,” said Matt Bennett, a vice president at the centrist but Democratic leaning Third Way. “That does not have a deep wellspring of support among the middle class at the moment.”