AFL-CIO's Trumka warns of 'repeat of 1994' for Democrats in 2010
By Alec MacGillis
Move our way or watch us walk away in the 2010 elections, warned AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka just hours before meeting with President Obama and other labor leaders Monday to talk about health care legislation.
If the health-care bill ends up including provisions anathema to organized labor -- as now appears quite likely -- and the White House and Congress don't show more aggressiveness on job creation, financial regulation and labor law reform, then Democrats risk seeing union members sit on their hands during the 2010 midterms, Trumka said in a speech at the National Press Club.
"This is a moment that cries out for political courage, but it is not in much evidence," he said. Without it, he said, there could be a repeat of the 1994 midterm election Democratic wipeout.
"In 1992, workers voted for Democrats who promised action on jobs, who talked about reining in corporate greed and who promised health care reform. Instead, we got NAFTA, an emboldened Wall Street - and not much more," Trumka said.
"We swallowed our disappointment and worked to preserve a Democratic majority in 1994 because we knew what the alternative was. But there was no way to persuade enough working Americans to go to the polls when they couldn't tell the difference between the two parties. Politicians who think that working people have it too good -- too much health care, too much Social Security and Medicare, too much power on the job -- are inviting a repeat of 1994," he said.
Trumka was even blunter in an interview with reporters before the speech, when he was asked about the political impact of the proposal in the Senate health-care legislation to tax costly health insurance plans.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama drummed up crucial support among skeptical union members in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania by attacking John McCain for his plan to tax all health-care benefits as regular compensation. Asked if Obama was risking electoral "disaster" by now supporting a more limited tax on health-care benefits, Trumka said that could "very well happen." "A bad bill could have that kind of effect," he said. "People could stay home. It could suppress votes."
But Trumka stopped short of saying that the AFL-CIO would not support a bill that contained a tax on costly health plans or fell short in the other areas the federation has pressed on, the inclusion of a "public option" -- which is highly unlikely -- and a strong mandate for large employers to offer coverage, which is also looking less likely.
Shortly before taking the helm in September, Trumka had left the federation's support in such an event an open question, but on Monday he acknowledged several times that labor was not going to oppose health-care reform after years of seeking it. He also dismissed a question about whether it might be hard for organized labor to pivot to supporting the bill, if their advocacy against elements such as the tax on high-cost plans has so turned off their own members against the bill. As it stands, the tax would fall on only a small handful of plans at the outset, and would tax only the value of the plans that falls above a certain threshold.
Was there a chance that workers might take from labor's agitation on this score an exaggerated notion of the tax's impact? No, Trumka said, no such exaggeration is occurring.
"We're out there telling them the truth," he said. "We're educating them on the good parts and on the bad parts."
Trumka took care to praise Obama on several points, such as the passage of the stimulus act and the proposed creation of a new consumer protection agency as part of financial regulatory reform. But his overall gist was that the promise of Obama's campaign was hanging in the balance.
"Now more than ever, we need the boldness and the clarity we saw in our president during the campaign in 2008," he said. "One year into the Obama administration, and one year into a Congress with strong Democratic majorities, we need leadership action that matches the urgency that is felt so deeply by working people."
Web Politics Editor
January 11, 2010; 4:40 PM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency
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