AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, calling a faction of White House officials racist, said optimism of shared policy goals between some union members and the administration has faded away, and pledged an unprecedented political campaign for the midterm elections.
“We will focus on our members in 2018 and have the most robust member-to-member program that we’ve had in the history of the AFL-CIO,” Trumka said during a breakfast with reporters Wednesday organized by The Christian Science Monitor.
Trumka declined to offer specific dollar figures or to name individual lawmakers that the union federation would target for support or opposition, but said the union was focused on informing its members and other working Americans of the administration’s agenda to dismantle a host of regulations.
He noted that on trade policy, an area where President Donald Trump’s populist message had resonated in particular with unions, he was not convinced that workers would make gains.
The union chief resigned earlier this month from a presidential council on manufacturing after Trump made comments blaming both sides — white supremacists and counter-protestors — for violence in Charlottesville, Va.
“You had two factions in the White House — you had one faction that actually had some of the policies that we would have supported on trade, on infrastructure, but they turned out to be racists,” Trumka said. “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.”
Still, he said, the union has continued to make its case on trade to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and other officials, despite his misgivings about the administration’s approach to renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. He was disappointed that proposed text has not been made public and that there had been no effort to reinstate country of origin labeling for meat, among other concerns, he said.
Labor leaders, however, see positive moves on NAFTA related to chapters on state-owned enterprises and trade enforcement, Trumka noted.
On the political front before the 2018 elections, Trumka acknowledged that making big gains for labor issues would be a “longshot,” given the deep pockets on the other side including those of the conservative Koch brothers and billionaire donor Sheldon Adelson.
Trumka reiterated that his union federation did not endorse Trump but worked in support of Democrat Hillary Clinton. The AFL-CIO chief said he would still back the administration on proposals that it supports, but Trumka said he opposed some of the White House’s early moves to roll back or revise overtime rules for workers, health and safety regulations, coal-mining standards and an Obama-era rule aimed at lowering workers’ exposure to beryllium, among other matters.
Big business groups, on the other hand, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have widely cheered the administration’s moves to lessen regulatory burdens on businesses, arguing that too many rules restrict job creation and economic development.
"Federal regulations alone are estimated to cost the American economy as much as $1.9 trillion a year in direct costs, lost productivity, and higher prices," the chamber said in a March report on regulations.
The Trump administration's push for a tax overhaul, too, Trumka said, was unlikely to benefit middle- and working-class Americans. Trump on Wednesday will make a public push for the tax overhaul in Missouri, where he is expected to stress his goal of lowering taxes to spark the economy and help the middle class.
“You’re beginning to see a lot of people come back across the bridge,” Trumka said of union members becoming disillusioned with the Trump White House.
Trumka warned Democrats, especially House members who believe the party could win control of the chamber in the midterm elections, that they will need a serious economic policy agenda in order to make gains with skeptical voters. Democrats need to pick up two dozen House seats to gain majority control.
“They want something to vote for and not just to vote against,” he said.