Feb 7, 2021 - Economy

AFL-CIO leader: Clinton, Obama let down unions

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka. Photo: "Axios on HBO"

AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka told Jonathan Swan in an interview for "Axios on HBO" that former Presidents Clinton and Obama didn't understand unions' importance — and were disappointments to organized labor because of it.

What they're saying: "Joe Biden has surrounded himself with people that are worker-friendly, so that in the multitude of decisions that are made every day without the president being involved, they're going to think about the impact it has on workers," Trumka said.

  • "That's a significant difference and a beneficial one for workers in this country," Trumka added. "And it's one of our reasons for optimism and hope."
  • Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — the last two Democratic presidents — "didn't understand the importance of labor and the importance of collective bargaining," he said.
  • "Both of them surrounded themselves with Wall Street people. And so all of their advice was coming from a Wall Street lens.”
  • Biden "still identifies as a blue-collar guy. ... He doesn't aspire to be accepted by Wall Street. He is what he is, and that is a genuinely good human being that cares about working people."

Why it matters: Trumka knows many union members feel burned by Obama and Clinton — and the Democratic Party, by extension — because of trade deals and other legislation that overlooked or was antithetical to organized labor.

  • Clinton infuriated organized labor with NAFTA.
  • When Obama took office in 2009, he didn't use his larger Senate majority to pass the labor movement's top legislative priority at the time — the so-called "card check" bill.
  • Then Obama tried to seal the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a trade deal many labor leaders believed would send American jobs offshore.

The big picture: The labor movement — which has suffered decades of declining power and membership — may never enjoy a more favorable climate in Washington than now.

  • Biden is vowing to be "the most pro-union president you've ever seen," coupled with Democratic control of the House and Senate.
  • But in a 50-50 Senate in which Democrats need Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties, it's hard to imagine they can find the 10 Republicans that are needed to overcome a filibuster and support labor's top legislative priority — the PRO Act.

What's next: Asked if he'll urge Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to end the legislative filibuster so Democrats can pass new labor laws with a simple majority, Trumka made a case for why the filibuster was undemocratic — but then demurred.

  • "I don't have the luxury of giving you that answer yet because my affiliates and I will debate that and come to an answer. I think I know where it'll go."
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