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Laboring Under A Cloud

The Los Angeles Times reminds us that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has had a mixed year at best:

The year might have ended on a purely triumphant note for Andy Stern, who heads the nation’s fastest-growing labor union and played a key supporting role in President-elect Barack Obama’s drive for the White House.

Instead, Stern has seen the Service Employees International Union jarred by a spending scandal and internecine feuding, and more recently by the favor-selling investigation that led to the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Stern has not been implicated in any wrongdoing, and many say he has moved forcefully to address the allegations of corruption in the union’s biggest California chapter and internal complaints of financial impropriety at a second Los Angeles local.

The details of Blago-gate and other scandal are yet to fully emerge:

While federal prosecutors allege that Blagojevich sought a plum job through the SEIU in exchange for filling Obama’s U.S. Senate seat with a labor ally, authorities have not accused union officials of participating in such a scheme. The union is cooperating with the investigation of Blagojevich.

But Stern’s critics point out that a trio of SEIU officers who have faced varying degrees of scrutiny were his appointees. Some say that his administration ignored early reports of trouble with one or more of them, particularly Tyrone Freeman, the sacked president of the largest California local. Freeman is the target of a federal criminal probe that confidential sources say probably will stretch well into 2009.

An SEIU inquiry already has concluded that Freeman misappropriated more than $1 million in union funds for himself and his relatives, an allegation he has denied.

This presents a challenge for the incoming administration, which owes so much, politically and financially, to Big Labor. President-elect Obama has already delivered Big Labor a dutifully subservient Secretary of Labor nominee. But significant policy decisions await the new President on free trade, card check legislation, and the car bailout, to name just three. He might, in ordinary times, have no difficulty deferring to his Big Labor sponsors on many if not all of these items. But now, with Big Labor’s unseemly behavior front and center, does the new President need to put some distance between himself and his union allies?

President Obama will face numerous balancing acts in his first year. Weighing the demands of the Democratic base against the demands of good policy and his own broader-based popularity is key to maintaining his political equilibrium. And none will be trickier than making sure that repayment of whatever debts he owes to Big Labor doesn’t call attention to the unseemly co-dependence between the nation’s most lavish special interest group and the Democratic Party. President Obama may need to, like no Democratic President before him, demonstrate the ability to say “no” to Big Labor. If not, the public may begin to question why the leader of the New Politics is doing the bidding of such questionable characters.



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