Former Pennsylvania coal miner Richard Trumka isn't president of America's biggest labor federation yet, but he's already cranking up rhetoric on issues from healthcare reform to making it easier to unionize.
When President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress first showed signs of compromise on healthcare reform, the incoming AFL-CIO leader warned lawmakers to keep a controversial plan for a government-run insurance option or feel labor's wrath in the 2010 congressional elections.
The warning drew attention in political circles since the 60-year-old union lawyer is unopposed to replace John Sweeney as president of the 56-union AFL-CIO at its annual convention next week in Pittsburgh.
But experts say Trumka's combative approach -- even when backed by 11 million AFL-CIO members and union support for Obama in the 2008 presidential race -- may not bring success for organized labor's priorities, including legislation to make it easier for unions to organize and expand into companies that now have little or no labor representation.
Every time there's a presidential election, organized labor works their heart out for the Democratic candidate. And every time the Democratic candidate wins, organized labor discovers that its agenda is put on the back burner, said Robert Reich, who was labor secretary under Bill Clinton.
VITAL ELECTION MACHINERY FOR DEMOCRATS
In 2008, organized labor spent hundreds of millions of dollars on promotional and organizing campaigns that helped generate votes for Obama in key swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
After seeing their interests stymied under Republican President George W. Bush, unions hope for a revitalization to help reverse decades of decline that have reduced its ranks to just 7.5 percent of the private sector work force.
But that largely hinges on the fate of legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act, or EFCA, which would let organizers set up bargaining units by getting more than half of workers at a job site to sign union cards.
But analysts say EFCA, a secondary issue for Obama after healthcare and climate change reform, may be in jeopardy.
While Obama and many Democrats in Congress support it, the White House has done little to move the bill forward in Congress, where it faces skepticism from some moderate Democrats and is vehemently opposed by Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
WORRIES ABOUT OBAMA'S POLITICAL CAPITAL
Union officials say the legislation's so-called card-check rule is necessary to keep employers from using intimidation tactics to thwart unionization. Republicans and business leaders say it undermines worker rights to a secret ballot.
Trumka and other labor leaders say they are optimistic about EFCA's chances of passage.
There's been an enormous amount of work in the Senate to arrive at the framework of an agreement that will pass. I think it'll happen before the end of the year, said Chris Chafe, executive director of the labor federation Change to Win, which is comprised of six unions with 6 million members.
But unless Obama champions it, analysts say EFCA likely will fail. And some say the administration may have limited political capital left for EFCA if the healthcare and climate change debates go poorly.
It's an uphill fight at best, and one that would make healthcare look like a spitball fight between kindergarteners, said Dan Schnur at the University of Southern California.
That may be the reason that the Obama administration isn't all that eager to take it on, he said.
Experts also say Trumka's uncompromising stance on the so-called public option in healthcare reform could backfire if labor's threats of retaliation imperil passage by moving the bill so far to the left that it loses support of moderate Democrats.
If that is indeed what they're doing, it will hurt their own self-interest, said Elaine Chao, who was labor secretary under Bush.
Unions view the public option as the best means to lighten the weight of healthcare insurance for employers and set the stage for union workers to regain some of the wages and other benefits lost to concessions in recent years.
(Editing by David Alexander and Vicki Allen)