Trumka vs. Trump: Labor leader warns that 'racist' rhetoric is dangerous

RIchard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, also weighed in on the candidates running for president at a breakfast for reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, spoke Sept. 1 about the need for Donald Trump to pull back on his anti-immigrant rhetoric at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters.

America’s leading spokesman for organized labor urged Donald Trump to back off from racially charged anti-immigrant rhetoric, and warned that the tone of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign could damage not just the Republican Party but also the larger body politic.

“When the leading [candidate] for one of the parties talks in an un-American, racist way, it starts to become mainstream. Racism can never become mainstream,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said Tuesday, at a breakfast for reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

“He doesn’t refer to white immigrants…. He only refers to people south of the border,” Mr. Trumka said. “That’s un-American, that’s dangerous. And six months from now, the country will suffer the scars from this, unless somebody calls them out on it.”

Trump, the real estate magnate who has pledged to put a fence along the Mexican border, has no shortage of fans (polls show him leading the Republican field) or of foes.

The labor leader said Trump’s momentum is prompting other to Republicans to take harsher stances on immigration. “Chris Christie starts talking about tracking immigrant workers like Fed Ex packages, [and] Jeb Bush keeps talking about ‘anchor babies,’ ” Trumka said.

Since Trump has parlayed his flamboyant, pull-no-punches style into front-runner status, other voices, including on the right, have begun to raise concerns about his potential influence on the party and the nation.

Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush (R), writes in a Washington Post opinion piece this week that Trump’s candidacy is defined by “the fomenting of conflict with foreigners,” including “by leading off with the issue of immigration, by proposing to narrow the protections of the 14th Amendment, by representing undocumented Mexicans as rapists, criminals and sources of infectious disease, by pledging to construct a wall across a continent, by promising the roundup and forced deportation of 11 million people....”

Trump’s appeal is not all about immigration or the risks of America losing economically to a rising China. He has also tapped voter anger at Washington elites in general. But in Mr. Gerson’s view, if Trump were to succeed in reshaping the GOP in his own image, it “would be an anti-immigration party of the white working class.”

That’s not a winning formula in an era when Latino voters are an increasingly prominent share of the electorate, and when a failure to connect with those voters can be counted as a key reason for the Republican presidential defeat in 2012.

As Trumka sees it, anti-immigrant politics could also damage the nation’s broader political fabric, if it seemed to legitimize racism at a time when the United States has serious challenges to confront on both immigration and working-class well-being.

He said the challenge of illegal border crossings is “a legitimate issue” in need of action. For one thing, Trumka said, “when an immigrant worker gets cheated out of wages and their employer underbids my employer, I get cheated out of wages.”

The AFL-CIO, as the nation’s big federation of labor unions, backs the idea of comprehensive immigration reform to correct that problem, while offering paths to legal status including citizenship for undocumented workers already in the US.

Polls show deep divides in the public over immigration, with about one-third of Americans saying immigrants in the US illegally should be found and deported, according to an August poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. In that poll, 47 percent favored a “pathway to citizenship,” and another 17 percent supporting “legal status, but not citizenship.”

Trumka also commented on the emerging Democratic primary campaign.

He refused to offer an opinion on whether Vice President Joe Biden should jump into the race to challenge front-runner Hillary Clinton, whose standing has been weighed down by negative news surrounding her use of a personal e-mail server while serving as secretary of State.

Trumka called Biden a “great friend” and “champion of workers,” who would make a “good president.” Trumka will be walking with the vice president at a Labor Day rally in Pennsylvania.

Mrs. Clinton, he said, needs to do more to “energize” workers to support her, especially after a recent refusal to take a clear position about trade negotiations now under way with Asian nations.

But he also said she has often been treated unfairly by the news media, especially on the political right.

“Hillary Clinton has to do A-plus work get a C, … I think because she’s a woman,” he said.

Of Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont who has been drawing big crowds by decrying inequality, Trumka said, “he’s connecting.”

The AFL-CIO typically doesn’t endorse a candidate before states start holding primary elections.

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