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Angry over trade, labor gets union-friendly pitch from Obama

February 9, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is using a union-friendly economic pitch to soothe anger among labor leaders over his push for new trade agreements with Asia and Europe.

The fight over trade is already steeling labor-allied Democrats in the House against giving Obama the kind of fast-track authority he wants to push trade deals through Congress. If Obama were to succeed, trade deals won with Republican support could depress union votes, with potential consequences for former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton if she decides to run for president in 2016.

The president has personally reached out to labor leaders, briefly delaying his departure for a domestic trip in January to huddle in the White House with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams. The topic was Obama’s upcoming State of the Union address.

A week earlier, Obama had invited Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, and Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers, to fly with him to Michigan aboard the presidential plane Air Force One.

Obama’s relationship with labor unions has never been close and at times has been downright chilly. The fight over the new trade deals promised to be as bitter as President Bill Clinton’s during debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement. But Obama has sought to court unions with an economic message straight out of the labor policy book.

“We still need laws that strengthen, rather than weaken, unions and give American workers a voice,” Obama said in his State of the Union speech to Congress in January.

For labor it was a welcome sentiment from a president whom many union leaders faulted for not pushing for greater bargaining rights early in his presidency when he had Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate. The Republicans now control both chambers.

Obama wants to keep the union anger to a quiet simmer by otherwise advancing an agenda that dovetails with labor’s. The result is a complicated alliance that has never had a strong bond.

“He has addressed our raising-wages agenda. He has been talking about middle-class economics, about jobs. He talked in his State of the Union about making unions stronger, not weaker,” said Bill Samuel, the director of government affairs at the AFL-CIO. “If you look at the policies from minimum wage, paid sick days, overtime, paid family and medical leave — these all appeal to the working-class families we represent.”

“Clearly the one area where we continue to have a very deep disagreement is over trade,” he added.

While the objections from labor to Obama’s trade push have been loud and constant, the labor movement is not monolithic.

“Public employee unions tend to have more skin in the minimum wage game than in the trade game,” said William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Still, passage of NAFTA over labor opposition in late 1993 has been blamed for a decrease in voter participation by union households in the 1994. Unions like the AFL-CIO punished Democrats by cutting back on their political funding.

Moreover, states with the largest union memberships include presidential battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.

“A big trade fight now can’t be helpful in terms of union participation in the next election,” Rosenthal said. “There will be some unions that will be extremely worried about jobs and trade, and Secretary Clinton is going to have to deal with that.”


Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this story.

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