Kaine Woos Labor as Senate Race Heats Up

Kaine Woos Labor as Senate Race Heats Up

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - April 30, 2012

Speaking to labor leaders at a gathering in Washington on Monday, President Obama knocked proponents of "right to work" laws that prohibit unions from requiring employees to become members.

“I believe when folks try and take collective bargaining rights away by passing so-called 'right to work' laws that might as well be called 'the right to work for less and less,' that’s not about economics -- it’s about politics,” Obama told a receptive crowd at a legislative conference sponsored by the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department. The president said every American should be given the right to organize, and his comments were greeted with cheers.

U.S. Senate candidate Tim Kaine took the stage after Obama exited and joked about the president being a tough act to follow. However, he could face a tough balancing act when it comes to labor issues. Kaine governed the right-to-work state of Virginia for four years and still embraces the Old Dominion’s law. But he also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and backed pro-union rallies against legislation to curb collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin last year. His presumed general election opponent, Republican George Allen, has tried to put pressure on Kaine by spotlighting national labor issues in the Virginia Senate race.

Instead of focusing on national issues, however, Kaine focused his own address on investing in infrastructure and attracting talent to the commonwealth -- two pillars of his own economic plan. “I have always been a reliable voice and a reliable vote for infrastructure funding and activities,” he said to applause. “And you will be able to count on me as a reliable voice and a reliable vote for infrastructure spending if I am your next United States senator.” He cited his efforts to push for funding of a Metro line that extends through Northern Virginia. And he criticized what he sees as an “anti-investment mentality” on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers favor cuts without revenue increases.

But Kaine also acknowledged he has a difficult race ahead in this key battleground state, and thus made a direct appeal to organized labor. “I have always considered myself a friend of and partner with labor,” he told the union leaders, noting that he was the first governor of Virginia to appoint a labor leader to his cabinet.

Given its right-to-work status, the state is hardly a hotbed for union activity: In 2011, union members accounted for just 4.6 percent of the workforce. “Labor is still an important constituency for Democrats, but union membership isn’t what it used to be,” says Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia who studies congressional races. "Does labor pack a punch in VA to push Kaine over the top in ways it can do in another state? Probably not, but [it packs] enough.”

Organized labor tried to assert itself in the governor’s race over two years ago, putting $2 million behind Democrat Creigh Deeds. Despite this, Deeds lost to Republican Bob McDonnell by double digits.

The comparison between the gubernatorial race then and the senatorial race now is “apples to oranges,” says Charles Smith, executive director the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ Virginia chapter. “2012 is a major, major election year on the federal level, and Obama heading the ticket with Kaine following right behind him” will likely encourage labor’s organizing efforts.

Since helping to elect Obama in 2008, organized labor has expressed disappointment with some of his policies, calling for a more substantial stimulus plan, for example. The Building and Construction Trades Department supports the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which the president has delayed approving until further environmental review is completed.

“A lot more needs to be done,” says Smith. “Is Obama a Scott Walker? Obviously not. But is he a president who used to be secretary of labor? No.” The first reference is to Wisconsin's governor, who championed a law limiting collective bargaining rights for public employees. “But he’s a far cry from any of the moderates or any of the Republicans who are out there.” Meanwhile, Smith says he is “excited about Tim Kaine.”

To attract support from labor groups and from business leaders at the same time -- two vital constituencies in business-friendly Virginia -- Kaine is walking a fine line. In his address Monday, he recalled his father’s iron-working shop in Kansas City: “He was the entrepreneur, he was the owner. . . . It had its ironworkers' organized workforce and it had my two brothers and me and my mom and my dad. And it wasn’t a battle between management and labor. It was a partnership.” Labor and working people “always have to be at the table,” he said. “I want to go into the Senate with that attitude.” But, he said, he can't do so without support from labor.

“I’ve benefited by the support of you in this room, and I haven’t been bashful about asking for it, and I’ve always tried to come back and say thank you,” Kaine said. But, he warned, the race against Allen, a former governor and senator, will be tight. The two candidates are virtually tied in the polls. “I’m kind of a close specialist,” Kaine said, noting that he has won all seven of the races he's entered but has never garnered more than 53 percent of the support."

"I’m the Maalox candidate,” he said. “There are going to be stomach tightening moments . . . but I’m going to win this one if I get your help.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

Latest On Twitter