AFL-CIO chief Trumka ‘disappointed’ in White House spat

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said he was disappointed by White House comments critical of the labor movement after the two butted heads in the Arkansas Senate race.

“We’re very disappointed that someone would say that when they know we have the right to fight for our membership,” Trumka told the Hill on Friday.

After Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) fended off a labor-backed challenger Tuesday, an anonymous White House official reportedly said unions had “just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet on a pointless exercise.”

Labor groups like the AFL-CIO and others had turned against Lincoln after she came out against including a government-run insurance program in the healthcare reform bill as well as opposing legislation that would make union organizing much easier. Unions got behind Lincoln’s challenger, Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, with television ads and voter canvassing but ultimately came up short in a run-off between the two for the party’s Senate nomination.

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs expressed a similar sentiment about unions’ failed challenge to Lincoln when asked about the comment.

“And while the president might not have agreed with the exact characterization, I think that whether or not that money might have been better spent in the fall on closer elections between somebody — between people who cared about an agenda that benefited working families and those that didn’t, that money might come in more handy then,” Gibbs said.

Trumka, however, said the labor movement would not back down.

“We reserve that right. We will continue to exercise that right. Any time there is a politician that doesn’t support working people, they shouldn’t take our support for granted, no matter what party they come from,” Trumka said.

The AFL-CIO and others, like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have said they would support challenges or not spend resources backing certain Democrats who have moved away from labor’s agenda for the 2010 midterm elections.

A number of House Democrats are likely to lose labor backing this fall for voting against the healthcare reform bill. For example, a SEIU spokeswoman said Thursday that the union had drafted a general election independent challenger to Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C), who voted against the bill.

Asked if he had talked to anyone in the White House about the comment yet, Trumka said, “We don’t get into that.

“I think it was one of the staff people. We will find out eventually,” the labor leader said.

Asked what would happen once union leaders found out who was that White House official, Trumka said, “We will have an interesting talk.”

But despite the anger directed toward the White House, Trumka said there is no break between the Obama administration and the labor movement. “A relationship doesn’t rise and fall on a single issue,” the AFL-CIO president said.

“Somebody in the White House thought they were being cute, that they would deliver a message,” Trumka said. “And our response was real swift and real decisive. We reserve the right to support politicians who support working people and we reserve the right to fight against and try to defeat and ultimately defeat politicians, regardless of their party, who don’t support working people.”