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AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, leader of the largest U.S. labor federation, put aside criticism and led the group to endorse Barack Obama for re-election, saying the president’s focus has changed.
“He was mired in the debate of deficit reduction, he wasn’t talking about jobs,” Trumka said yesterday after an executive council meeting in Orlando, Florida. “Since then, he has been talking about jobs, jobs, jobs, and that’s what’s been on peoples’ minds.”
Obama also proposed spending $447 billion to build highways and bridges, for subsidies to help local governments stem teacher layoffs and reducing by half the payroll taxes paid by workers and small-business owners. In addition, he appointed three members to the National Labor Relations Board, over Republican objections. Obama spoke to the labor leaders by telephone after their decision.
The backing by the group representing 12 million members, less than year after Trumka said enthusiasm for Obama had waned, suggests unions are warming to a second term. In June, Trumka said union members were frustrated by “wasted energy” in Washington on issues that don’t help workers, such as wrangling with Tea Party activists and Republicans on cutting the deficit. Trumka also said Obama reneged on pledges to labor in pushing free-trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
“Clearly there was some liberal dissatisfaction,” said Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington. Obama has pivoted toward re-election and is energizing his base, Wayne said.
Labor unions spent a record $450 million in 2008 electing Obama and Democrats to Congress. Obama, who won the AFL-CIO’s backing four years ago, is relying on labor’s get-out-the-vote effort for his re-election bid.
Obama efforts to rewrite U.S. health-care laws and steps to rein in the financial-services industry won praise from the labor groups, Trumka told reporters. Obama’s Republican opponents, such as Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, are beholden to the wealthy, he said.
“Mitt Romney doesn’t have a have a clue what people go through every day,” Trumka said.
The federation cited Obama’s role in leading an $82 billion federal bailout for General Motors Corp. (GM) and Chrysler Group LLC. Both companies have emerged from bankruptcy. In his statement yesterday, Trumka gave credit to Obama for “a move that saved hundreds of thousands of jobs and is helping to revive the economy.”
Congress in 2010 passed the Dodd-Frank Act, which required hundreds of rules to revamp how the financial industry does business. Republicans in the U.S. House are proposing to repeal some provisions of the law, enacted after the collapse of global financial markets.
Romney has said he opposed the auto bailout and has called the Dodd-Frank a “killer” of small banks.
The regulation of financial services and government aid for automakers will become divisive issues between Democrats and Republicans, Wayne said. Independent votes are less likely to be swayed by the issues, he said.
“Labor talks about it because people think big corporations are just out to make a lot of money and the automotive bailout saved jobs,” Wayne said. “It appeals to their groups -- not to convince independents -- but to juice up the base.”
Republicans said Wall Street rules and aid for GM and Chrysler represented an overreach by government. Romney has said he opposed the bailout and criticized the Obama administration for regulations, including on financial services.
The endorsement means Obama will benefit from the AFL-CIO’s willingness to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the campaign, said James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation in Washington
“They are the 800-pound gorilla of interest groups,” Sherk said. “They can send that money any way they like.”
In 2008, the AFL-CIO backed Obama after he wrapped up a Democratic primary battle with Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, who is Obama’s secretary of State.
Though some workers don’t think Obama has done enough to push job creation, and some worry trade agreements will send jobs overseas, there is little doubt the union would support him, Wayne said.
“Unions would still rather have Barack Obama in the White House than an investment banker like Romney,” Wayne said.
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