AFL-CIO president smacks Obama for weak, ‘little nibbly’ labor policies

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The AFL-CIO is distancing itself from the Democratic Party, redirecting its funds to build its own permanent political organization, and pressuring President Barack Obama to embrace a big-spending program for job creation, Richard Trumka, the union’s president, said today.

The storied labor federation’s level of support for Obama in 2012 will be decided early next year, and will partly depend on whether Obama abandons his current strategy of promoting “little nibbly things,” such as a patent-update law, Trumka told a press breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “That’s not going to get the job done,” he said. “Everybody knows that.”

The AFL-CIO has played a critical role in Democratic electoral strategy in recent decades, partly because it helps persuade millions of union workers to vote for Democratic candidates rather than voting GOP — or staying at home.

In September, Obama “is going to give a jobs speech … I hope he’ll come up with bold solutions,“ Trumka said. He offered specific suggestions, including a high-speed rail program, high-tech electrical grid upgrades, and a program to repair an estimated $2.2 trillion shortfall in infrastructure maintenance.

“If he continues to do as some of his staff are urging, to focus on those little things that others can accept, he doesn’t become a leader. He becomes a follower,” Trumka intoned.

Trumka declined to identify specific staffers who want the president to focus on “little nibbly things.” (RELATED: Obama mum on details from secret AFL-CIO meeting, critics bill it as more WH union favoritism)

“I think [Obama] made a strategic mistake when he confused a job crisis with the debt crisis [and] started playing on Republicans’ grounds of deficit reduction,” Trumka said. “We don’t have a short term deficit crisis … we have a short term jobs crisis.” The U.S. deficit problem would disappear, he added, “if you fix the jobs crisis” first.

“This is the moment working people and, frankly, history will judge President Obama on his presidency,” Trumka warned. “Will he commit all his energy and focus on bold solutions and the jobs crisis? Or will he continue to work with the tea party to offer cuts to middle-class program, like Social Security, all the while pretending the deficit is where our economic problems really are?”

Without a focus on government-funded job creation, union members are less likely to turn out on election day, said Trumka, forecasting: “If they don’t have a jobs program, I think we better use our money for other things.”

The AFL-CIO’s new political spending model will rely heavily on its new “Super PAC.” The fundraising committee “is definitely a ‘go’ … [and] it will be controlled by our [AFL-CIO] executive committee, and money can come from any source other than employers,” he said.

The new fund is “is a sign that we’re changing strategies,” he said. “In the past, we set up our programs six to nine months before elections, and didn’t grow it in between, and only talked to [union] members.”

“We have made a decision now that … we will keep our organization, our structure in place, so that we can transition smoothly from election politics to advocacy to accountability,” by reaching out to political allies and non-union workers, he said.