WASHINGTON — President Obama’s innovative, take-no-prisoners campaigns crafted an elite force of operatives, skilled in the political arts. Now that they’re done helping Obama, however, it appears they have a new goal: weakening and defeating organized labor.
On Tuesday, Obama’s former top White House adviser and 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe signed on with Uber, the company known for its slick app and on-demand cars — and efforts to break taxi-union holds on urban transportation.
Plouffe joins former top Obama campaign and White House communications strategist Robert Gibbs and Obama’s national press secretary for the 2012 campaign Ben LaBolt, who are using their talents in a campaign against the power of teacher’s unions.
Along with them is Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina, who went to London to work for the reelection of England’s Conservative Party government, which is campaigning on a platform that includes new rules English labor says would make it “close to impossible” to go on strike.
American labor is still wary of talking on the record about Obama, but union frustration with the path Obama’s campaign dream team has taken is palpable.
“Unfortunately this is what they and a lot of folks on the campaigns and White House have always thought,” a former top labor official said.
“The personal journeys” of the staffers prove that money remains the ultimate deciding factor in politics, said Larry Cohen, the president of the Communication Workers of America, which has made its own aggressive spending push in recent cycles, donating millions.
“The key staff from Obama for America are translating their political success into personal economic success,” Cohen said. “If anything this points to the need for the rest of us to build a movement that gets big money out of politics so the change we voted for in 2008 can become real.”
In June, Gibbs and LaBolt’s firm, the Incite Agency, signed on to lead the public relations campaign supporting a number of lawsuits seeking to dismantle teacher tenure, accentuating the growing schism within the Democratic party on how to handle public education. The lawsuits are being led by former CNN host-turned-education-activist Campbell Brown, whose faced a barrage of attacks from teachers unions since the suits were filed.
“Gibbs and LaBolt are relying on their reputation as Obama alums, yet they should know better than most the toxic and negative effects of a scorched earth strategy and how this kind of strategy derails us from the work we’re trying to do to help kids, families and communities,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told the Washington Post back in July.
LaBolt defended his move, saying “there’s no better way to promote opportunity” than to fight firing teachers based solely on seniority.
“We can’t have a great education system that prepares kids for today’s global economy if we make teacher performance irrelevant,” LaBolt said in an email. “There’s no reason why the national teachers unions could not embrace common sense reforms to these policies — but so far they have chosen not to.”
Messina has faced a number of criticisms from Obama’s base back home in the states since throwing his efforts behind the Tories. A Conservative promise to make strikes more difficult after a massive labor action in July has dismayed organized labor in the UK, which says new rules raising the threshold for strike votes and constraining picketing will strip their power to negotiate. A labor leader in the UK said the proposals “amount to an attempt to ban strikes by the back door.”
Messina insists he is not trying to weaken labor.
“I am not taking on unions,” he told BuzzFeed. “There is no example of that.”
The other former Obama campaign strategists did not respond to a request for comment.
Among labor activists, the general sense is that some top officials from Obama’s campaign team, who worked very hard for labor support in 2008, are showing their true colors now.
“Do I recall correctly that a lot of unions were Hillary backers initially?” one former labor official mused, recalling the bitter primary campaign fight over labor’s support in 2008. “I wonder how much of this is payback and how much is philosophical. Or maybe a blend. I always heard that the Obama ‘08 crew held pretty serious grudges about that.”
Through both of Obama’s terms in office, labor has for the most part tread very lightly around the administration, clashing with the White House from time to time on Keystone, foreign trade pacts, and other matters but by and large staying in the president’s corner. It’s not hard to get leaders of the largest unions to wax on about Obama’s White House.
In private conversations, labor people point out that not all of Obama’s 2008 campaign have gone the union-busting route. Labor leaders still love Vice President Joe Biden, and in particular, his former top adviser Jared Bernstein, who left the administration for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in 2011.
Two more top strategists from Obama’s presidential campaigns, Jeremy Bird and Mitch Stewart, have thrown their efforts behind organized labor. Their consulting firm 270 Strategies lists SEIU as a top client, though SEIU officials declined to comment about 270’s role with the union.
And the AFL-CIO said the career decisions of Obama’s former colleagues haven’t put a damper on their relationship with the president. But a spokesperson took a slight swipe at the post-Obama career paths of the men who put him in office.
“The administration has been a champion of working families by advocating for raising wages and giving workers a voice on the job,” AFL-CIO spokesperson Amaya Smith said in an email. “We’re focused on the policies pushed by those who currently work for the president.”