AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka discusses Barack Obama and Donald Trump

WASHINGTON –From his office on the top floor of AFL-CIO headquarters in downtown D.C., federation President Rich Trumka has a vantage point few share: He gets to look down on presidents. His window overlooks the White House, less than two blocks away.

And from his official vantage point as the president of the nation’s largest labor federation, Trumka has a similar perspective: He gets to discuss and evaluate those presidents’ performance for workers.

That vantage point led to a conversation Trumka had with Press Associates Union News Service about past Democratic President Barack Obama and, in an evaluation that’s just beginning, current Republican President Donald Trump.

Obama, whom unions strongly supported in his two White House runs, drew a lot of praise from the 67-year-old former coal miner and Mine Workers leader. But Trumka also said that Obama, the former Illinois U.S. senator and Chicago law professor, had his flaws in policy implementation.

“I give him an ‘A’ for intentions and effort, and a B-/C+ on execution,” Trumka says.

Not all the flaws were Obama’s fault, Trumka points out. The U.S. president tried throughout his first term to work with both parties on Capitol Hill, not realizing the Republicans’ implacable opposition to everything, and its consequences. And, Trumka observes, the president had to compromise, sometimes with his own party’s members, to achieve his goals.

“Every single obstacle they could throw in his way, they did,” Trumka says of the GOP’s hard line against Obama’s initiatives and legislative proposals during the president’s first – and second – terms. “It’s tough to say what he would have done if he had been dealt a fairer hand.”

While Obama was more forthrightly pro-worker in his second 4-year term, “a lot of stuff took too long, so it could get turned around,” Trumka notes. And not just on pro-worker fights.

“The coup d’état was (Merrick) Garland,” Obama’s nominee to a now-vacant U.S. Supreme Court seat, Trumka says. “He would have been a great justice and a fair judge,” Trumka adds of Garland, now chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C.

So far, the GOP-run Congress — and Trump — are executing some of those turnarounds, passing legislation to overturn Obama labor rules and other decisions. And after Senate Republicans even refused to hold hearings on Garland — shutting him out of the court — Trump nominated federal appellate judge Neil Gorsuch to the vacancy. Gorsuch’s anti-worker decisions and dissents lead the AFL-CIO and individual unions to strongly oppose him.

Despite the obstacles in Obama’s path, Trumka praises him for pulling the country back from the brink of a second Great Depression. “He took us from losing 800,000 jobs a month to creating jobs every month,” Trumka points out. Obama’s American Relief and Recovery Act — the $787 billion stimulus law — helped achieve that. But even that law had its flaws.

“The mistake he made in the stimulus law was that the ‘shovel-ready’ jobs were also short-term jobs,” the federation leader noted. AFL-CIO members and unions pushed for the stimulus, again over GOP opposition, while arguing that the amount should have doubled and the funds should have been funneled more towards helping workers and families.

Though the stimulus law helped pull the nation out of the recession ditch, it was a missed opportunity to invest in long-lasting infrastructure projects of national importance, Trumka adds. And it “could have had stronger Buy America provisions,” he points out.

Comprehensive immigration reform saw a similar pattern. From conversations with administration officials, Trumka says Obama thought that if he agreed with the Republican emphasis on high, stringent enforcement against undocumented people trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border, the GOP would agree to everything else, including legalization.

“So he (Obama) became zealous on enforcing the laws,” as deportations soared into the hundreds of thousands yearly and labor and immigrant rights groups fumed. “He fell for their bait, and they were never going to be moved a bit,” Trumka said of the GOP’s reaction.

That was Obama’s first term. Near the end, once Obama realized the implacable GOP opposition, he instituted the DACA and DAPA programs, to let undocumented people brought here as youngsters, and who are now in school, at jobs or in the military, stay in the U.S. Many Republicans want to deport them, and Trump wants to build a wall at the border.

But immigration and the recovery act weren’t the only cases where the GOP said “hell, no” to major initiatives. Labor’s top legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, was, too.

That comprehensive reform would have written card-check recognition into labor law, reduced corporate-created obstacles to organizing drives and increased fines and other penalties for labor law-breaking. A Senate GOP filibuster threat and a multi-million-dollar corporate disinformation campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act helped kill it.

So did health care reform, Trumka said. And even that legislation, the Affordable Care Act, has its flaws from labor’s point of view.

Obama “spent all his political capital on the health care bill,” Trumka pointed out. That left none for the labor law’s passage. And even within the ACA, Obama “gave away the public option” — a congressional compromise with advocates of single-payer government-run insurance — “and control over prescription drug prices.”

Those Obama compromises, Trumka admits, were needed to pass the ACA. No Republicans voted for the health care law. They still want to repeal it, with no replacement.

But Obama’s flaws and compromises still left “a number of different areas” where the two-term Democratic president tried to work for workers, Trumka says.

He particularly cited “the best Labor Department in a long, long time,” strengthening enforcement of wage and hour laws and tougher mine safety and job safety agencies. And Trumka added on Obama’s executive orders and federal rules covering everything from worker exposure to beryllium to DOL’s fiduciary rule mandating that financial advisors to workers on pensions put their clients’ interests first.

Most if not all of those achievements came in Obama’s second term, under Labor Secretary Tom Perez, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

They occurred, Trumka says, because Perez had more influence with the White House than did his predecessor, former Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif.  And Perez, a former Maryland Labor Commissioner, “knew how to run a big organization,” and was more politically adept. Solis “deserves the credit for bringing the people in” to DOL “and getting the ball rolling.”

Now, congressional Republicans and Trump are eating away at the foundations Obama laid. Trumka met Trump one-on-one twice in recent months. Their first session was a week before the Republican’s inauguration and the second was in the Oval Office. Trumka defended all the pro-worker moves in their talks. And he says Trump is very different in private.

“He’s a lot lower-keyed and a lot more personable” than he was on the campaign trail, the AFL-CIO chief says. “You can have a discussion with him and he listens a lot.” Their two talks covered a wide range of issues: Trade, infrastructure, immigration, job safety and health standards, the fiduciary rule, the beryllium rule, wage and hour problems, and more.

Trumka’s top point to Trump was that “every worker, whether in a union or not, ought to have the ability to improve their wages” and standards of living by “having a right to collective bargaining.” Current U.S. labor law falls far short of that.

Trumka also cautioned Trump against proposing measures that would increase current economic inequality, which is larger than at any time since 1929. “I told him corporations are too strong and workers are too weak” against them, the federation president explained.

Trade and infrastructure are two areas where unions and Trump may work in harness, but it depends on the details, Trumka warns. “A $1 trillion infrastructure bill is the proper scale, but if he thinks you can do that only by public-private partnerships, it’ll go up in smoke. The biggest bang for the buck is when you do it with public money,” he explains.

Overall, “It was an honest, candid and productive conversation,” Trumka says of his talks with Trump. But the proof will come later.

“Talk in this town is overabundant. We’ll judge him on what he does.”

Source: PAI