Labor chief: Obama needs to focus on job growth, not cutting the deficit

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Thursday that President Obama needs to do what is necessary to boost the struggling economy and not give into Republican demands to cut government spending.

Speaking to reporters at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor, Trumka said Washington’s obsession with the national deficit could lead to a second recession. The White House needs to consider substantial measures to fix the lagging job market and not fall into a Republican-laid trap of focusing solely on paring down the nation’s debt, he said.

The labor leader recounted what he said to Obama in a recent meeting between the president and union officials.

“I said, ‘Do not look at what is possible. Look at what is necessary,’ ” Trumka said. “ ‘If you only propose what you think they will accept, they control the agenda.’ I urged him to propose what was necessary to solve the problem, and I hope he does.”

Otherwise, history — and union voters — will judge Obama accordingly as the president seeks reelection in 2012.

“If he doesn’t and he falls into the nibbling around the edge, I think history will judge him on that. And I think working people will too,” Trumka said. Some of the bold actions Obama could take to fix the jobs crisis is rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure or letting tax cuts for the wealthy expire, according to Trumka.

The labor movement has often been frustrated with the White House, especially its dealings with the Republican-led House since the 2010 elections increased the party's power in that chamber. The AFL-CIO and other unions were not pleased with the compromise deal to lift the debt ceiling or with several other actions by the president, including his aggressive push to pass a trio of stalled trade deals this year.

That frustration has led to some in the labor movement to back out of attending or sponsoring the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Unions are a key Democratic constituency, often boosting voter turnout every election for the party’s candidates, and their non-participation in the convention shows the extent of their unhappiness with Democrats.

Trumka said what to do regarding the convention is still under discussion at his labor federation.

“We’re still talking about it. Some our affiliate unions are not going to participate. Some of our affiliate unions are going to participate,” Trumka said.

The decision regarding the AFL-CIO’s level of participation will come later this year at an executive council meeting, according to the labor federation president.

Trumka was not shy with reporters about sharing his frustration with the administration. Trumka is a member of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, but questions whether the group is helping, since he believes it hasn’t proposed anything bold enough to jumpstart hiring.

“I don’t know whether the commission is making a difference or not. I have asked that very same question,” Trumka said. “There’s only two labor people on it. It’s a business commission is what it is.”

Trumka said he is waiting to hear the president’s jobs speech next month. He said Obama cannot be distracted by demands to cut government spending when what is really needed is more federal action to get people back to work.

“He has to focus all of his energy on bold solutions to the job crisis,” Trumka said.

If Obama doesn’t offer such solutions, Trumka said, the president could end being a follower instead of a leader.

“I think he doesn’t become a leader anymore. He’s being a follower because they are controlling the agenda,” Trumka said.