AFL-CIO chief: Trump torn between 'racists' and 'Wall Streeters'

AFL-CIO chief: Trump torn between 'racists' and 'Wall Streeters'
© Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Wednesday that the Trump administration is divided between “racists” and “Wall Streeters” — and that it’s up in the air which side the president will land on.

Unions had been hopeful that President Trump would deliver on key campaign promises that appealed to a populist base, the leader of the nation’s largest labor group said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington.

Although unions, including those that are part of the AFL-CIO, generally all supported Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE during the election, they softened opposition after Trump won in the hopes that he would follow through on his rhetoric admonishing the unfairness of some current policies, such as those involving trade deals.

But Trump brought along aides such as Stephen Bannon and Sebastian Gorka who pushed a nationalist agenda, and also added several corporate executives, including Goldman Sachs alums Gary Cohn and Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinDeficit hawks voice worry over direction of tax plan GOP eyes limits on investor tax break Overnight Finance: White House requests B for disaster relief | Ex-Equifax chief grilled over stock sales | House panel approves B for border wall | Tax plan puts swing-state Republicans in tough spot MORE, to serve in key roles.

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“The difficulty was that you had two factions in the White House,” Trumka said. “You had one faction that actually had some of the policies that we would have supported on trade, in infrastructure — but they turned out to be racist,” he said, referring to Bannon and Gorka, who both left the White House this month. 

“And on the other hand, you had people who weren’t racist, but they were Wall Streeters. And the Wall Streeters began to dominate the administration and have moved his agenda back to everything he fought against in the election."

Pressed on which side the labor leader believes Trump primarily falls, he took a long pause.

“Which day?”

He then added: “I don’t know. I wish I had the answer to that. I think a lot of people wish they had the answer. He has shown a remarkable ability to do a 180 on a dime.”

When reporters asked questions referring to Gorka and Bannon as “allies” of the AFL-CIO or as decidedly pro-worker, Trumka quickly pushed back: “That’s not how I described them,” he said, adding that they merely had “likeminded economic thoughts.”

Trumka was among several high-level figures who stepped down from Trump’s manufacturing advisory council earlier this month, following the bipartisan backlash to the president’s comments on a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in which he blamed “both sides” for the deadly violence and said there were “very fine people” among the white nationalist protesters.

Although the council was ultimately disbanded by the president, Trumka said that it had never been a functioning body in the first place. 

“The [manufacturing] committee itself, it never was a vehicle to provide real policy solutions. In fact, the committee never met,” he said. “It became a way to get every regulation they didn’t want to deal with off” the books. “They didn’t have any solutions for helping manufacturing.

As a result, Trumka said, the overall optimism that labor unions had about the new administration has begun to "evaporate."

“He said he was going to bring healthcare for everyone, and we agreed with him, [but] every proposal that the Republicans came forward with, he supported,” Trumka said, noting that those GOP plans would have taken health insurance away from millions of people. 

Trumka also believes that the House, currently run by Republicans, could flip as early as the 2018 election — but only if Democrats properly capitalize on the economic concerns of voters around the country in a genuine way.

Democrats could take control if they “came out with a strong economic message and agenda and convince people they are going fight for it and that it’s not just a slogan or messaging or a campaign creation,” he said. “In the last election, whether they voted for Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE or Hillary Clinton, wanted to change the rules of the economy, that’s what they were voting for.”

The AFL-CIO is actively involved in negotiations around NAFTA, the trade deal among the United States, Mexico and Canada. Trumka says that the federation has submitted a long, detailed analysis of every chapter within the proposal and areas in which they disagree.

“Trade would be a good thing if it benefitted everyone,” he said. “The purpose [of NAFTA] was to give corporations the upper hand, and that’s what it did.”

There is now a focus on communicating daily with union members — who, as individuals, largely supported Trump because of his campaign promises to shake up the status quo and improve the economy for working-class people, Trumka said. 

“They voted for Trump because he was going to do this, and do that, and do this and do that,” he said. But the effort to eliminate rules around overtime pay, health standards and consumer and worker protections are chipping away at that support.

“Calling the president names — even if they’re accurate — gets you nowhere. Giving people information about the issues that are of concern to them is a way to bring those people” away from supporting him, and Trumka says workers are typically “drawing the conclusion that their investment wasn’t a good investment.”