Facing a more hostile political landscape, labor unions are gearing up for major fights on Capitol Hill next year. They’re also preparing for a potential clash with the White House if President Barack Obama compromises with Republicans.
Despite those challenges, a top union official suggested Tuesday he did not interpret Republican election victories earlier this month as a sign for his side to retreat.
“It was not a mandate for John Boehner’s America,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, referring to the Ohio Republican who is presumed to be the next Speaker.
In the lame-duck session, Trumka said his organization would fight efforts to extend the President George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy while lobbying for an extension of unemployment benefits that will soon expire. The labor organization will also lobby for immigration reform with a push for the DREAM Act.
And the labor group opposes the deep spending and benefit reductions recommended by the co-chairmen of the federal deficit commission, which is due to issue its final report Dec. 1. Instead of cuts next year, labor priorities would include pushing for more transportation and infrastructure spending and closing corporate tax loopholes, the union chief said.
“We will play defense, but we will also play offense,” Trumka said in a conference call with reporters.
Such a strategy will put organized labor at odds with newly empowered House Republicans, who have made it clear they want to extend all of the tax cuts and are keen to begin taking a whack at the federal budget.
The unions may also find themselves in conflict with Obama, who has suggested a willingness to negotiate with Republicans on some policies. The White House has indicated that it may be open to a temporary extension of tax cuts for upper-income earners. The president has also refrained from criticizing the initial recommendations of the federal deficit commission, which he created.
In a bid to reach out to GOP lawmakers, Obama has been trying to obtain approval of a free trade agreement with South Korea.
Not Ready for Concessions
Trumka was not ready to take conciliatory tack on the trade deal or most of the other matters. He called the deficit commission recommendations a “millstone” around the economy. He referred to the tax cuts for higher-income Americans as “TARP 2,” a reference to the widely unpopular Troubled Asset Relief Program that rescued ailing banks and was approved at the height of the financial crisis in 2008.
“It is insane for some people to want to continue George Bush’s tax giveaways to millionaires,” he said.
Saying he was concerned about the “outsourcing of American jobs,” Trumka added that he could not support the South Korean trade pact as drafted. But he did leave open the possibility of switching his position if the president were able to negotiate changes to the trade deal. While unions have opposed nearly all trade pacts in the past, Trumka did not issue a blanket opposition of all such deals.
“We will look at every deal as they come out,” he said.
The union president would not address whether compromise by the administration on taxes, spending and trade might cause tension with organized labor. He would only say that the unions have been in discussions with the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress.
The political atmosphere for organized labor is chillier than two years ago, when Obama and Congressional Democrats, swept into office with strong support from unions, vowed to try to enact much of the labor agenda.
Some of those priorities, such as health care and financial reform, were approved after an expensive lobbying campaign, much of it underwritten by the unions.
But one top priority, the “card-check” measure that would make it easier for unions to organize, has stalled because of opposition from Republicans and centrist Democrats. Union officials said privately that if the current Congress, with strong Democratic majorities, could not pass card-check, it has no chance of passage next year.
Loyal to Pelosi
Despite the change in House leadership, the unions are remaining loyal to some of their traditional liberal allies, most notably Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The major unions have backed her bid to be Minority Leader in the next Congress despite the opposition of some of her colleagues, who blame her for the party’s steep election losses.
“When others might chose to cut and run, Speaker Pelosi has decided to stay and fight,” Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said in a statement.
Henry cited Pelosi’s role in passing health care and financial services reform as well as fighting efforts by Bush to create private Social Security accounts.
Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, also issued a statement of support, calling Pelosi “the most effective speaker of the House in history.”
“AFSCME looks forward to working with her as she and other Democrats stand up to the destructive policies and delusional pronouncements we can expect from those who will temporarily be in control of the U.S. House,” he said.
As they have in the past, unions were among the top spenders in the recent elections, using the vast majority of their resources on Democrats.
The SEIU spent more than $15 million, AFSCME $12.4 million and the AFL-CIO almost $3 million during the 2009-2010 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Organized labor also shelled out about $32.1 million in the first three quarters of this year on federal lobbying, according to a CQ MoneyLine analysis of lobbying disclosure reports filed with Congress.
The lobbying has been focused not just on Capitol Hill, but also on federal agencies. Those agencies could be particularly important if there is gridlock in Congress, according to labor officials. Labor groups have been paying close attention to agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Labor Relations Board, which have become more aggressive under Obama.
Earlier this year, Obama rewarded organized labor by making a recess appointment of Craig Becker to the NLRB. Becker’s Senate confirmation had been held up by Republicans who criticized him for being a union activist.
But even as they keep an eye on the regulatory process, union officials said they will not ignore what the new Congress is doing.
“We are going to be as aggressive as we can on Capitol Hill,” said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s legislative director.