Trumka says Dems’ aggressive posture helps election chances

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Monday that Democrats showing some backbone on Capitol Hill will help their midterm election chances.

He cited the passage of healthcare reform and progress being made on a financial services regulatory reform bill as signs that Democrats are willing to fight for their beliefs and not succumb to the GOP minority.

That new, more assertive stance was crystallized last week for Trumka when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called for repeated cloture votes on Wall Street reform legislation until Republicans backed down from their filibuster.

“Harry Reid showed some leadership and said if you are going do it again, you are going to stand on the floor for 30 hours and defend the big banks,” Trumka said. “They folded like a two-dollar accordion at that point.”

Trumka, the head of a powerful union ally to the Democrats, said the party’s candidates “have greatly improved their chances” in the 2010 elections, which is a more optimistic take than he had just a few months ago. At the National Press Club in January, Trumka said the Democrats were inviting a repeat of their 1994 losses if they continued to show little progress on their legislative agenda. At the time, healthcare reform had not passed and the financial services bill was not being debated on the Senate floor.

For Trumka, Reid’s push to get the Wall Street reform bill on the Senate floor showed the bold action voters are calling for.

“It showed some leadership. That’s what people are looking for. They are looking for someone with some backbone,” Trumka said of Reid. He said other

Democratic leaders, like Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), “get it” by pushing for jobs legislation this congressional session.

Trumka’s appreciation for Democrats also comes at a much-needed time for the party. Along with the AFL-CIO, Democrats are slipping into campaign mode and will need motivated union support to fend off Republicans this fall.

Since Democrats took control of the White House and Congress last year, the labor movement has not seen the gains it hoped for. Union priorities like the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would make union organizing much easier, is wallowing in the Senate while a government-run health insurance plan, known as the “public option,” did not make it into the final healthcare bill.

Accordingly, the AFL-CIO has reworked its political program, Trumka said, and will focus more on issues instead of candidates as it gears up for the midterm elections.

“We are completely changing our political program from electing people to electing issues. We are running on the jobs issue, and they are going to be melded into our political program,” Trumka said. “It won’t be about electing people, it will be about electing support for our issues. Jobs will be the No. 1 issue.”

For example, Democrats who voted against the healthcare reform bill have risked their labor support. Trumka was seen personally lobbying Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), who voted against the healthcare reform bill. Despite being an advocate for the public option, Trumka said he supported the bill because it was “a step forward” on an issue that has vexed presidents for almost 100 years. 

The union leader noted that while Lynch did not vote for the healthcare reform bill, he did vote for the reconciliation package that changed the underlying legislation, equaling “half of a vote” for Trumka. Labor support for the Massachusetts Democrat will depend on whether Lynch’s local AFL-CIO union decides to endorse him or not — a decision that Trumka will then support.

Labor groups have seen some other gains this year. After his nomination failed to clear the Senate, union attorney Craig Becker was recess-appointed in March to the National Labor Relations Board by President Barack Obama, which the labor movement applauded.

Trumka said the AFL-CIO has “a good working relationship” with the Obama administration. “Sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t. But we always have our say at the table,” he said.

One victory that has eluded the AFL-CIO so far is seeing the Employee Free Choice Act signed into law. Unions have struggled to find the 60 votes in the Senate to move the standalone bill, and discussions have moved to attaching it to another piece of legislation.

“Anything we can get it attached to. There are multitudes of things we can get it attached to, and we will. We will get it done and it will be a good thing for the country,” Trumka said. “Quite frankly, I don’t know when we ever had 60 votes.”

The union leader was bullish on its chances of passage, saying there will be a vote on the bill this year and it will pass.

With the resignation of Andy Stern as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Trumka is now the most prominent voice in the labor movement. He said he has a good relationship with the SEIU’s next likely president, calling Mary Kay Henry a “quality leader.” He said he would welcome unions from the breakaway Change to Win coalition back into the AFL-CIO fold.

“We would welcome all the unions that were out right now. As Lane Kirkland [a former AFL-CIO president] once said, all sinners belong in church and all unions belong in the AFL-CIO,” Trumka said.