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The Poster Child for Big Labor

The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Service Employees International Union has grown quickly over the past few years by organizing home-health-care workers, often with the help of state governors and lawmakers who received generous campaign donations and other union support. Using political influence in this way isn’t illegal, and businesses that often oppose unions use similar strategies. But the scandal involving Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has put a harsh spotlight on the SEIU’s methods just as it is seeking broad support for federal legislation that would make it easier for workers of all types to unionize. Federal officials allege Mr. Blagojevich sought to sell the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama in a scheme that potentially involved him getting a $300,000-a-year job at a group affiliated with the SEIU, in return for promising to appoint a pro-union official to the seat. The SEIU says that it doesn’t believe any of its officials engaged in any wrongdoing, and the governor on Friday denied wrongdoing. Next month, an antiunion group plans to air television and radio ads that play up the SEIU’s alleged involvement in the saga as part of its campaign against the legislation, known as the Employee Free Choice Act.

Just how close is the SEIU to Blago? Pretty darn close:

The SEIU contributed about $1.8 million to Mr. Blagojevich’s two campaigns for governor, in 2002 and 2006, and was his top contributor in the second election. Critics have long charged that it is suspicious that several big SEIU contributions to Mr. Blagojevich occurred close to when he acted in ways that benefited the union.

In one example, the union contributed $200,000 to Mr. Blagojevich on March 3, 2006, according to data compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Six days later, the governor signed a labor contract covering SEIU home-care workers. Following the contract, membership at SEIU Local 880 in Chicago increased to 45,000 workers from 24,000, according to Labor Department records.

The SEIU’s top official in Illinois is Tom Balanoff, a close aide to Mr. Stern and the SEIU official was identified in an internal union communication as having met with Mr. Blagojevich when the governor allegedly suggested selling the Illinois Senate seat. Mr. Balanoff didn’t respond to several requests for comment.

The SEIU’s relationship with Mr. Blagojevich began when he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2001, he took the SEIU’s side and opposed a bill in Congress to federalize airport security workers. Three months later, he received a contribution from the SEIU for $250,000.

Later, the SEIU poured more than $800,000 into his first gubernatorial campaign. The previous governor, George Ryan, had refused to sign an SEIU-backed bill that would have given bargaining rights to home-care workers. Soon after being elected, Mr. Blagojevich signed an executive order in 2003 that enabled the SEIU to start organizing these workers.

It is no wonder that the group  “The Center for Union Facts” intends, according to its spokewoman, “to make the SEIU the poster child for the Employee Free Choice Act.”

There are several items at issue here. The first is whether the SEIU or any of its officials  may have any criminal exposure in Blago-gate. Patrick Fizgerald will get to the bottom of that. Unlike the savvy Rahm Emanuel,  Tom Balanoff — the official widely reported to have had the conversations with Blago — was perhaps not so circumspect in his wheeling and dealing, now recorded on tape. The “teaser” in the criminal complaint suggests he was, at the very least, willing to hear Blago’s demands and “run them up the flag pole.”

Second, the SEIU’s involvement in Blagogate does pull back the curtain on the degree to which Big Labor funds, influences and ultimately controls the political agenda of the Democratic party. How this plays out in the Obama administration remains to be seen. Beyond selecting a Labor Secretary who is entirely beholden to Big Labor (and who received nearly $900,000 in campaign cash), President Obama will have to make decisions about the car companies,  free trade (or not), and card check legislation.

And, yes, card check is the issue on which the influence of Big Labor will come to a head. Nina Easton wonders whether this might be President Obama’s “gays in the military issue” — a partisan knock-down-drag-out fight which puts at risk his agenda and coalition-building efforts:

Obama has gone out of his way to make peace with the business community — in the choices for his economic team, in suggesting he won’t immediately repeal the Bush tax cuts.

Opening a bloody war with business over card check could sap all that good will.

Already, card-check opponents are warning that this could become the new president’s gays-in-the-military moment, an early and costly stumble by a neophyte President Clinton similarly fulfilling a campaign promise without fully appreciating the fierce opposition it would stoke.

That may be wishful thinking. But Republican leaders are already counting on the issue as a badly needed motivator for their down-and-out ranks. “It certainly should help us put our coalition back together,” House GOP leader John Boehner told Fortune. “This will affect every business in the country.”

Boehner is right on that score: Nearly every business not already unionized — from the neighborhood dry cleaner to the regional plastics plant, including firms in right-to-work states — would be more easily unionized. Not since the same issue surfaced in 1979 has a proposal so thoroughly unified business owners.

Ultimately, politics is the art of reducing complex issue to simple, understandable symbols and compelling messages. The opponents of Big Labor have caught a break that they don’t intend to squander. They will combat Big Labor’s agenda with  the image of a decimated car industry (complete with a still-defiant UAW railing against “unfair” demands to reduce their crippling collective bargaining obligations) and the SEIU. As political symbols go, those are two powerful ones.


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