On Friday, stiff labor opposition helped derail a measure necessary to clear a path for an up-or-down vote on a sweeping trade deal that the White House is negotiating with 11 other nations bordering the Pacific Ocean.
"Labor worked on this long and hard," Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat sympathetic to the emerging deal, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, said on the eve of the vote. "If labor was neutral on this issue, and members were allowed to just make a decision on their own, this bill would not have a problem in passing."
While a broad coalition of unions and liberal activists can claim credit for beating back the president's favored legislation, the key to labor's display of force in Congress, according to supporters and opponents of the trade deal, was the movement's unusual cohesion across various sectors of the economy -- including public employees and service workers not directly affected by foreign competition.
Labor leaders and their rank and file feared that, whatever the overall benefits to the economy, the emerging deal would accelerate the loss of good-paying jobs for blue-collar workers. "The pay levels people would have to compete with are obscene," said Larry Cohen, a former Communications Workers of America president, who led the coalition. There is evidence that freer trade has reduced the incomes of those without college degrees.
Since March, according to the AFL-CIO, union members have held 650 events opposing the legislation. They have made around 160,000 phone calls to members of Congress and written more than 20,000 letters. The federation also produced digital ads, which have received more than 30 million views, aimed at several dozen members of Congress.
While it is still possible for labor to lose if the House Republican leadership manages to revive the legislation necessary to pass the so-called trade promotion authority this week, the odds for such a reversal are long, analysts say.
Labor's smartest move was lining up opposition to the president's trade agenda as early as 2013, said Simon Rosenberg, president of the advocacy group NDN and a supporter of Obama's effort. "They did a good job getting out and defining [trade promotion authority] early among Democratic House members, really peeling off an enormous number of folks who didn't have long history or an understanding of the issue, prior to the White House engaging."
Since 1997, when a major campaign led by labor achieved a rare victory by blocking what was then known as "fast track," union members' share of the workforce has dropped more than 20 percent. Among private-sector unions, the share has dropped almost one-third.
Apart from that success, though, workers lost most of the fights over trade in recent decades -- most notably the North American Free Trade Agreement, which President George H.W. Bush signed with Mexico and Canada and President Bill Clinton pushed through Congress.
Back then, the major industrial unions like the steelworkers shouldered most of the responsibility for the effort, rallying their members to pressure lawmakers and saturating newspapers and radio stations with ads. The major service and public-sector unions -- like those representing teachers, firefighters and hospital workers -- officially supported the campaigns but offered little follow-through.
"We were really not active," said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Firefighters, who was chief of staff to the union's president in 1997. Although the firefighters communicated their opposition to members and allies on Capitol Hill, "we didn't work it with a passion; we didn't invest resources," Schaitberger said.
This time around, the firefighters not only made a considerable investment -- producing ads and paying to broadcast them in five congressional districts -- Schaitberger personally led the effort within the AFL-CIO executive council to freeze all donations to members of Congress by the political action committees of the federation and affiliated unions until after the vote on trade promotion authority.
Schaitberger acknowledged some apprehension within the labor movement about denying money even to longtime congressional allies, but he argued that it had been the most effective way to persuade friendly members of Congress to pressure wavering Democratic lawmakers.
In recent days, after Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York reversed her previous opposition to trade promotion authority, the AFL-CIO paid for an advertisement in her district that questioned her character, not just her position on a procedural trade vote.
"On Saturday, Rice flip-flopped," a narrator in the ad intoned. "Why should we ever trust Kathleen Rice again?"
Rice, a former prosecutor, questioned the wisdom of the unions' tactics. "Do I think it's wise to spend their members' hard-earned money attacking someone who agrees with them on just about every other issue, in an election where my opponent will no doubt be anti-union, anti-workers' rights?" she said. "No, I don't."
John Murphy, senior vice president for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he was mystified by the position of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 2 million workers.
"None of these workers are in any way negatively affected by competition with imports," said Murphy. "Yet SEIU will be there, showing solidarity."
'this isn't over yet'
Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had worked in rare tandem on the trade partnership, yet their inability to deliver raises the question of whether much else will get done with Republicans running Congress and Obama in the White House for the next 18 months.
"This isn't over yet," said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a main supporter of the trade legislation. "I'm hopeful that the Democrats understand the consequences and get together with the president and finish this as soon as possible."
House GOP leaders took steps that would allow another vote on the worker-retraining program in coming days, but that would require at least 90 votes to shift.
Republicans sounded pessimistic that they could add many more votes for a program that most on their side deride as wasteful and unnecessary.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and her labor-backed allies are determined to oppose the Trade Adjustment Assistance program as a way to collapse the entire package. So it seems unlikely that enough Democratic votes would emerge to save the program, even though the party has promoted it for years.
"Some of my Democratic colleagues are in danger of self-immolation" on the workers' program and "I think that's sad," said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., one of the few Democrats who backed Obama on Friday's votes.
Another possible route is to send revised legislation back to the Senate. But senators approved the larger package only narrowly last month after intense battles, and the White House wants to avoid giving opponents there another chance to strangle the legislation.
The trade-related measures' defeat Friday in the House also was a blow to Obama's ally, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, half a world away.
Abe has made reviving Japan's economy one of his top priorities, and forging a wide-ranging trade pact with the United States through the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a key part of that goal.
For both countries, the partnership has been viewed as a way to counter a rising China. For the United States, it was a way to project influence in Asia; for Japan, it was a way to regain some of the economic might it has lost as China has gained.
In Beijing, there was no immediate official reaction to the measure's failure.
Japan, the second-biggest party to the deal after the United States, has been counting on the deal to boost trade and to help the government usher in much-needed restructuring -- particularly in agriculture and automobiles -- that would be difficult to institute without the excuse of outside impetus.
Akira Amari, Japan's trade minister and lead negotiator in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, said the result in the House made the situation "extremely delicate."
"It's now very tough [to hold minister-level consultations] at the earliest possible time," he said Saturday, according to the Nikkei business newspaper. But he said there also was no need to be downcast just yet.
Meanwhile, anti-Trans-Pacific Partnership campaigners were jubilant. "Happy news," tweeted Uchida Shoko, secretary-general of PARC, a social justice group.
The delay also could be good news for South Korea, which has been seeking to join the talks, only to be rebuffed by the United States, which does not want an additional negotiating partner at what it thinks is a late stage in the discussions.
Information for this article was contributed by Noam Scheiber of The New York Times; by Erica Werner, Charles Babington, David Espo, Alan Fram and Jim Kuhnhenn of The Associated Press; and by Anna Fifield, Simon Denyer, Yuki Oda and Xu Jing of The Washington Post.