I remember a lot of fanfare over this Joan Walsh column, where labor leaders claimed they were “declaring independence” and moving to state and local politics for the purposes of self-preservation. Indeed, some of that has happened. The International Association of Fire Fighters closed their federal PAC. Labor poured a lot of money into the Wisconsin recalls and was notably silent about the debt limit. Some building trade unions plan to sit out the Democratic National Convention. But today, the political director of the AFL-CIO said labor would not abandon the President in his re-election campaign.

Despite the frustration labor activists have expressed toward the administration for the deals it has cut with congressional Republicans, Obama still provides a better alternative to a potential Republican president, said Michael Podhorzer, the labor federation’s top politics officer.

“I don’t think that the labor movement will be on the sidelines with President Obama,” he said in a sit-down interview with The Hill Wednesday.

Podhorzer said that the union is likely to announce this fall that it’s creating a so-called “super PAC” that can spend and receive unlimited amounts of campaign donations. Podhorzer said the labor federation has been limited by election laws to contacting just its own members but with a super PAC, the AFL-CIO can expand its outreach to non-union voters as well.

Podhorzer did continue to say that the labor movement would focus on grassroots infrastructure, something they have already been doing with Working America and the fights at the state level. But he added, “We’re not moving away from national politics to focus on the states. We just have to do both.”

This is really not what Richard Trumka promised back in May. It’s another example of labor falling in line. They believe that their interests are better served by a Democratic President in the White House.

We can look at the record. EFCA went nowhere. Labor claimed to be in favor of a public option, and didn’t get that. Their job ideas are only now being taken up, at a time when they cannot pass. The high road contracting executive order never materialized. The White House wants free trade deals bitterly opposed by labor.

On the flip side, the National Labor Relations Board has been revitalized, mainly due to recess appointments of its leaders. They outlined new steps for labor elections that would improve the process. The NLRB laid down a decision in the Boeing case that actually followed the law and prevented deliberate outsourcing to a right to work state. The White House has been pretty good on protecting markets from the illegal dumping of Chinese goods, like tires and steel. They’ve filed some complaints with the WTO.

Labor clearly feels trapped, thinking they have nowhere to go but to support the status quo. They could actually participate in primaries to ensure that the worst of the Democrats are defeated, as they tried in Arkansas (a low-density union state) with Bill Halter, but this article says that they aren’t moving in that direction, either.

“I think our approach would be more toward investing our resources in races where there is a really pro-worker candidate and where there is a good opportunity to win,” Podhorzer said, “and to basically stay on the sidelines for the candidates for the Democrats that you would put in the Lincoln category.”

That’s I guess a non-confrontational way of doing it. I don’t see how that has been successful. But if labor wants to focus on Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren at the expense of Ben Nelson and Claire McCaskill, fine. I’ll just believe that when I see it.

I think we have to be careful not to paint the labor movement with such a broad brush. But it’s clear that a lot of the leadership still thinks in terms of partisan warfare. As such, they are not respected by the Democratic leadership to the degree they could be.

UPDATE: Just to wrap this debate, the proof will come in the final numbers. If labor spreads its money less on the federal side and more to lasting infrastructure as well as state and local races, it should be noted as an evolution. If not, it isn’t. And the degree of the evolution should be noted as well.

David Dayen

David Dayen