Presidents of three unions, including the powerful Teamsters, sent a letter this month accusing Democratic leaders of breaking promises.
The timing could not be worse for the White House, which is facing political heat — some of it from Democrats — for a self-imposed delay of the law's employer mandate as the administration works around the clock to roll out state-based insurance markets by Oct. 1.
The unions' complaints are twofold.
First, the law defines a full-time workweek as 30 hours, not 40. Critics point out that employers, in an effort to stay below that threshold to cut costs, have begun to cut workers' hours.
Second, health plans administered jointly by unions and employers under the Taft-Hartley Act — a type of plan in which many union members participate — will not be eligible for government subsidies to offset premium costs. But those plans will be taxed to help pay for the subsidies to employees in for-profit plans.
Unions say the Obama administration could fix the problem through the regulatory process, but some critics say unions are looking for special treatment through subsidies in addition to employer-based insurance.
Either way, the unions are not pulling punches in trying to keep their health plans competitive.
"Right now, unless you and the Obama administration enact an equitable fix, the [Affordable Care Act] will shatter not only our hard-earned health benefits, but destroy the foundation of the 40-hour work week that is the backbone of the American middle class," the bosses said in their scathing July 12 letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
The growing rift indicates that some of the law's most ardent initial supporters of the act increasingly feel left out in the cold.
"Nothing has really happened; they are just trying to get a better deal," said Jon Gruber, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and a key architect of health care reform in Massachusetts and the federal Affordable Care Act.
A spokesman for the Teamsters, Galen Munroe, said in a phone call that the union would not comment on any aspect of the health care law.
Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, said the situation will only get worse for the administration.
"When a couple unions come out this forcefully, you're going to see more unions do the same," he said.
They already have. The Laborers' International Union of North America sent a letter Thursday to Mr. Obama warning that the law could impose "destructive consequences" on their health care plans, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
But Mr. Barrasso said there "would be an outcry" if Mr. Obama cut a deal to accommodate unions.
Republicans say the White House favored big business over everyday folks when it decided to delay, until 2015, a mandate requiring employers with 50 or more full-time workers to provide coverage. But the administration did not delay the individual mandate requiring most Americans to obtain some form of insurance.
For days, Republican critics of the law have seized upon the particularly harsh language that Teamsters boss James Hoffa and two other leaders — Joseph Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Donald "D" Taylor, president of UNITE HERE — used in their letter to Democratic leaders.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said "when even cheerleaders for the law start to become its critics, that's when you know there's something to this 'train wreck' thing everyone keeps talking about."
The unions cited Mr. Obama's promise that if Americans liked their health care plans, they would be able to keep them.
"Sadly, that promise is under threat," the unions wrote, saying they would withdraw their support unless their grievances are rectified.
"This is especially stinging because other stakeholders have repeatedly received successful interpretations for their respective grievances," they wrote, citing the decision to delay the employer mandate after business owners complained about its complex reporting requirements.
The Republican-led House voted last week to codify the White House's one-year delay of the employer mandate, with 35 Democrats supporting the measure. Nearly two dozen Democrats also voted to delay the individual mandate.
The bill is unlikely to gain traction because supporters of the health care act say the mandate is needed for the law to be effective.
In the meantime, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, is trying to team up with unions to "permanently delay" the health care reforms.
"I hope," Mr. Hatch told the unions in a letter, "you will accept my invitation to provide relief from the law to all Americans and ensure that the law will no longer threaten access to insurance, increase costs, or deny individuals from keeping their existing health insurance plans as the president had promised."