Trumka sees labor as ‘unpredictable partners’ for Democrats in 2010

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Thursday that he sees unions as “unpredictable partners” to Democratic candidates in the coming 2010 midterm elections.

Speaking at a forum hosted by the AFL-CIO and Working America, an affiliate of the labor federation, Trumka said the labor group is focusing more on supporting candidates that are right on the issues rather than on their party affiliation.

“What we intend to do is to run on issues, less than run on people and party, and then support the people who support those issues,” Trumka said.

Next Tuesday, primary day in Arkansas, is the biggest test yet of the labor movement’s aggressive push to hold Democrats accountable who were not supportive of the unions’ legislative agenda this Congress.

The AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union and other labor groups have spent millions on televisions and get-out-the-vote efforts in support of Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who is challenging Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) for the party’s Senate nomination. The two are having a runoff on Tuesday to see who wins the party’s nod for the general election race this fall.

That race is the most prominent example of labor’s push against Democrats who were unwilling to vote for healthcare reform or for legislation that would make union organizing much easier. Trumka said the AFL-CIO will not support Democrats if their record veers away from working-class issues.

“I guess you could call us in the future 'unpredictable partners,'” Trumka said. “Because we will partner with the Democratic Party when they operate in the best interests of working people and we will not when they don’t.”

At times, Democrats have disappointed their labor supporters this Congress. Trumka lamented how much stimulus funding has gone outside of the United States as well as unemployment benefits being stripped out of the tax extenders bill voted on in the House last week.

The labor leader also noted the Obama administration’s support of a tax on high-cost insurance plans in the healthcare reform bill. He credited that policy with the Democrats’ loss of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) seat to Scott Brown (R) in January this year.

“Two thirds of the people in Massachusetts who thought the excise tax was going to hit them voted for Brown,” Trumka said. “This administration had run against the excise tax. Then to reverse it, it was tough for our members to understand. We couldn’t explain it.” 

Speaking at the same forum, one member of Congress said she welcomed unions holding Democrats accountable.

“It doesn’t trouble me that if organized labor is asking for accountability, that demand comes to all Democrats who want the support of organized labor. I think that should be expected,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.).

Edwards said she thinks this election will be all about accountability and that Democrats need to hold those responsible for the economic crisis to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to win voters’ support this fall.

“I think that speaks to the frustration of the Tea Partiers as well as it speaks to the frustration of liberals who are sitting out in congressional districts like my own,” Edwards said.