The fact that Obama is seen as cool to labor is not as novel a situation as it may seem, says Robert Reich, who was Bill Clinton’s labor secretary before returning to teaching. “Clinton promised labor law reform, and they never got it. It rapidly sank to the bottom of his agenda. Democratic presidents rely enormously on unions as ground troops, and then take them for granted. Unions don’t really have much of an option,” says Reich.

What bothers labor leaders more than legislative lapses is Obama’s failure to step up when he’s needed with words of encouragement. Except for one brief statement in support of unions in Wisconsin, Obama kept his distance from the demonstrations that roiled the state capitol for weeks over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to slash employee benefits. Vice President Joe Biden, always an outspoken friend of labor, was supposed to speak in Wisconsin until the White House reportedly quashed the invitation. At least that’s what the unions believe. There were other strikes too, like last month’s walkout at Verizon, where “communications workers hoped for some encouraging words from the White House and there weren’t any,” says Reich.