AFL-CIO chief Trumka: Race is less of an issue in 2012 election

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, says race matters less – 'The sky didn't fall' – in the 2012 election, which is overwhelmingly about jobs and the economy.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor/File
In this photo taken last year, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is shown at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters in Washington.

Four years ago, one of the big questions hanging over the presidential election was whether the nation was ready to elect its first African American president. Barack Obama’s victory spoke for itself.

Now, as President Obama seeks a second term, race still matters, but not as much, says Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the US’s largest trade union federation.

“I’d be foolish to say it’s still not an issue, because it is,” said Mr. Trumka, speaking after a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “But it’s less this time, because we’ve had four years. The sky didn’t fall, everybody didn’t grow tails and a pitchfork.”

This election, he says, is overwhelmingly about jobs and the economy, including health care and pensions. “That’s what [workers] care about.”

Referring to cultural matters such as gay marriage and guns, he says, “You’re going to find people that vote only on one of these issues. You’ll find some of them, but not as many as people think.”

The issues that people say they vote on, he says, “sometimes they’re code. It ain’t about guns, it’s about something else.”

The AFL-CIO is implementing its largest labor outreach plan ever during the campaign, with 400,000 volunteers focused on more than 20 battleground states, Trumka says. In six “core” states – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Florida – the labor federation has had full-time staff on the ground for a couple of months running phone banks and door-knocking operations.

“I do think that President Obama will win reelection,” Trumka said at the breakfast. “I think it will be a close race. And I think it will be a close race because of the massive amounts of money and resources that will get pounded into this election.”

Trumka also predicts that the Democrats will maintain control of the Senate, where they currently hold a 53-seat majority. He doesn’t rule out the possibility that Democrats can gain the 25 seats needed to retake control of the House, but “I won’t bet the ranch on it.”

One point of contention between the White House and organized labor has been the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, which is to run between Canada and the US Gulf Coast. Last year, the Obama administration appeared set to approve it, but then backed off amid fierce opposition from environmentalists.

Organized labor supports the pipeline project and the jobs that would come with it. And Trumka suggests there could be an accommodation in a second Obama term.

“A lot of people try to say it’s either or – either you do the project or you destroy the environment,” the labor leader says. “I think there’s a way to do things both ways. Where you can do things without destroying the environment, and I think we should be looking at that – doing things in a sustainable way.”

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