AFL-CIO President on Midterm Losses, Obama's Problems, and Working With the GOP

The nation's desperate economic situation has cost Democrats their largest majorities in recent memory. Richard Trumka tried to warn them.

"If you go back two, three years ago, I was screaming, 'It's about jobs! it's about jobs!' and everyone was going--" Trumka pretends to yawn.

For the AFL-CIO president, this election was a particularly tough one. Not only is the American working class suffering through the worst economic strife since the Great Depression, but President Obama, whom Trumka worked to elect, has seen his approval ratings plummet among Trumka's own constituency: working-class white voters. Trumka blames Tuesday night's results on the economy--and not much else.

"This is a bad economy for working people, and they took it out on everybody who was in office," Trumka said Wednesday during a meeting with reporters and editors at National Journal. "And, quite frankly, if they don't make it better in two years, they'll do it again, and we'll probably be helping them do it."

Obama's troubles, Trumka said, have something--but certainly not everything--to do with how the president delivered the economic message.

"I think at times the president stepped on his message when he would talk about job creation and deficit reduction and failing to distinguishing between the two, and it confused things" the AFL-CIO president said.

"Is that responsible for this?" Trumka asked, sizing up the midterm analysis that's been offered countless times on cable news. His answer: "No. You can't look at something like that and say if that hadn't happened, all of this would be different."

People didn't know what was in the stimulus (which was too small, anyway), Trumka said.

"I go to union halls and say, 'How many of you know you got a tax cut?' And inevitably two or three will raise their hand," Trumka said, despite the fact that one third of the stimulus was made up of tax credits.

Organized labor is in a tough spot heading into the next Congress, what with Republicans in control and the president looking, potentially, to compromise with them--which, by definition, will mean tacking away from what labor wants.

At this point, Trumka won't say if he'll support Obama in a compromise with House Republicans on the Bush tax cuts. The AFL-CIO has favored the president's position--to extend the tax cuts on earnings up to $250,000, but not or higher earnings--but a temporary or partial extension seems like a plausible first step of Obama/GOP compromise under the new Congress. "I don't negotiate in the press," Trumka told us.

Trumka assesses his relationship with incoming House Speaker John Boehner as "probably not much of a relationship so far," but says the AFL-CIO is willing to talk to the Ohio Republican, who called Trumka on election night.

The AFL-CIO will bring a legislative agenda to the lame duck session, and to the next Congress, that sounds fundamentally similar to what labor has pushed for in the past two years. Increased funding for states, including Federal Medical Assistance Percentages (FMAP) money for health care; an extension of unemployment benefits; infrastructure spending. Its five-point plan includes taking unused or paid-back TARP bailout money and lending it to regional and local banks, to increase lending to small and mid-sized businesses. As talks resume on a potential free-trade agreement with South Korea that was initiated under President Bush, Trumka calls it a non-starter, a terrible deal that would hurt multiple U.S. industries.

But the bottom line is: "jobs, jobs, and more jobs."

If Republicans pursue the agenda they campaigned on, Trumka says, they'll be out of power soon enough: "If they continue to say, 'No, no, no, couldn't, wouldn't, shouldn't, can't, won't' for two years, we'll be sitting here after the next election, I'll be smiling, they'll be frowning, becasue they will have done exactly what the American public said you shouldnt' do."