Obama exhorts unions to step up election efforts for Democrats

President Obama on Wednesday asked labor leaders to set aside their disappointments with his administration’s progress so far and rally around Democratic Party candidates ahead of the midterm elections.

Speaking before the AFL-CIO’s executive council in Washington, Obama said he understands union members’ frustration over their priorities being stalled in Congress despite Democratic control.

“If you are talking to a lot of your locals, I’m sure they’re saying, ‘Boy, change is not happening fast enough. We are still hurting out here,’ ” Obama said. “They are frustrated. They have got every right to be frustrated.”

But the president said Republicans, not Democrats, are to blame for the lack of progress on key parts of his agenda.

“You have to remind [union members] that for the next three months, this election is a choice,” Obama said. “You got these folks who drove America’s economy into the ditch. And for the last 20 months, we put on our boots and got into the mud and have been shoving that car out of the ditch inch by inch.”

Democrats will need labor’s help during the 2010 elections to hold back a potential wave of Republican gains, especially on the House side, where the GOP has a realistic chance of retaking control.

Despite labor’s frustration with the White Houseat times, Obama was greeted with a lengthy standing ovation at the event. He walked around the room at the Washington Convention Center, greeting many council members with a handshake or a hug, before his first speech to the council as president.

He said it was good to be with “good friends” on his 49th birthday, joking that he was disappointed there was no cake.

Obama praised labor throughout the speech and noted that the AFL-CIO helped push many of his policy priorities through Congress. He also said he believes in union protections and would join a union if he were a coal miner or teacher.

The president said his administration is enforcing labor provisions in trade agreements and looking to grow the economy by promoting the renewable energy industry.

“At the heart of it is going to be three powerful words: Made in America,” Obama said. “There are no better workers than U.S. workers. There are no better workers than your members.”

Obama vowed to keep fighting for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), so-called “card-check” legislation that would make union organizing much easier.

“Getting EFCA through the Senate will be tough. It’s always been tough; it’ll continue to be tough. But we’ll keep on pushing,” Obama said.

But Obama also said EFCA is not the only means available for promoting unions. He noted his administration’s work in appointing labor-friendly officials to the National Mediation Board and the National Labor Relations Board, agencies that have oversight of union elections and labor law violations.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Obama “did a great job” with the speech.

“I thought he lit a fire under the base,” Trumka said.

The union leader also said the president’s remarks about EFCA and about joining a union were “particularly gratifying.”

Despite Obama’s support, EFCA has stalled in the Senate due to opposition from the GOP and from some centrist Democrats.

Business associations have lobbied heavily against the bill, and it is unclear whether it has any shot at passage this year.

Nevertheless, Trumka said he and the White House are working on a way to move forward on EFCA, though he would not disclose any details.

“We are working on a way to pass it, and they are active participants in that,” Trumka said.

Trumka said labor realizes Democrats need their help in the upcoming elections and predicted the threat of Republican gains will spur union members into action.

“We will fight hard to educate our members on the grassroots level,” Trumka said. “I think we will be able to motivate them and you will see a Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.], not a Speaker [John] Boehner [R-Ohio].”