At a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor this morning, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, one of the most powerful union officials in the country, talked with reporters on the state of the labor movement, the recent elections in Wisconsin, President Barack Obama's rhetoric on jobs and the economy, and the labor movement's plan for the 2012 elections.
When it came to questions of labor's strength in an age of poor growth, attacks on public-sector unions, and the ongoing decline of private sector union membership, Trumka pointed to recent events as proof positive of labor's continued relevance. "Let's look at Wisconsin," said Trumka, "We put two senate seats away from the Republicans, we had 49 percent of the vote in six districts that are the most highly Republican districts out there, we have organized hospitals, brought 30,000 new members into Working America, so in place like Wisconsin, we're doing well."
Trumka wouldn't commit to support for a recall election against Governor Scott Walker, but he wasn't bearish about the prospect either, saying that it wasn't a "steeper hill for labor," given their performance in the recent recall elections.
As the conversation moved to the White House's relationship with labor, Trumka expressed frustration with the president's "nibbling" approach to job creation. "He's talking about things like patent reform and an infrastructure bank, but that's not going to do anything for jobs. He needs to do this with the scale and urgency of deficit reduction." Trumka wants Obama to propose solutions big enough in scope to tackle high unemployment, even if they don't have a chance in Congress. "If you only propose what you think they will accept," he explained, "then you let them control the agenda."
Indeed, when it came to the president, Trumka was more concerned with his rhetoric than anything else: "If he continues to focus on those little things, then he doesn't become a leader, he becomes a follower." When asked to diagnose the source of Obama's political troubles, Trumka blamed the president's decision to link -- at least rhetorically -- job creation and deficit reduction.
Trumka didn't lay much-deserved blame at the feet of the Tea Party Republicans control the House of Representatives and thus set much of the legislative agenda. But he was willing to criticize the Republican presidential candidates. "God help us if the [Texas] miracle is nationalized," Trumka said, a reference to Texas Governor Rick Perry's record for job creation. "The jobs created were minimum wage or sub-minimum wage. The problem is that workers don't have enough money to spend, not that we should give more workers less money to spend." That said, if Democrats don't push for a jobs program, and if President Obama doesn't devote his rhetoric to "jobs, jobs and more jobs," Trumka sees a labor movement with far less enthusiasm for the president's re-election effort. As he put it, "I think we will better use our money doing other things."