Union leader Trumka: 'no doubt' he can trust Clinton on trade

At a Monitor breakfast, AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka said he has 'absolute trust' in Hillary Clinton to make major changes in the TPP free trade deal. 

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks to reporters in Washington Thursday.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, trusts Hillary Clinton to keep her word on free trade.

Back in July, when Mrs. Clinton’s close ally, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, said that a President Hillary Clinton would in fact support the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade deal – after fixing “a couple things” – he quickly had to backtrack. 

But can Clinton really be trusted to make major changes to TPP, in the name of protecting American jobs and workers, and not just a few tweaks? Mr. Trumka did not hesitate.

“I have no doubt in my mind,” Trumka told reporters Thursday at his annual pre-Labor Day breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “I’ve looked her squarely in the eye, just like I’m looking at you, and we’ve talked about TPP. I’ve known her for 30 years, and there’s never been one time where Hillary Clinton has given me her word on anything that she didn’t follow through on. I have absolute trust that she will follow through on that.”

As for Governor McAuliffe, Trumka didn’t mince words: “Well, Terry needs to keep his mind in gear and not let it get into neutral once in a while.”

Clinton’s constancy in her new posture on trade, after years as a proponent of free trade deals, is crucial to maintaining union support in the presidential race. Republican opponent Donald Trump – and Bernie Sanders before that, during the Democratic primaries – has made opposition to TPP a cornerstone of his pitch to working-class voters, who form a critical part of his political base. (President Obama supports TPP.)

Trumka expressed confidence in organized labor’s ability to turn out votes for Clinton, despite Mr. Trump’s inroads into the white working class.

“We’re probably about where we were with Barack Obama at this point with the election,” Trumka said, adding that the more organized labor gets information out to workers, “the better off we get.”

Trumka on Trump

But he acknowledges the competition with Trump – and then slams him as a “fraud.” 

“Anytime a politician is on the same side of an issue as us, we think it’s a positive thing,” says Trumka.

But “Donald Trump talking about being against trade deals is almost laughable. He has a history of being for every trade deal that ever existed. He outsources every one of the products he has,” Trumka says, a reference to Trump’s clothing line and other foreign-made goods bearing his brand.

“But he saw the power of that issue, the political power, and being the opportunist that he is, he jumped on board,” Trumka says.

The AFL-CIO chief adds that he’s happy Trump “jumped on board” and got the other candidates in the presidential race to oppose TPP. “We don’t see that as a threat at all. We see him as a fraud, and not being sincere about his support. But if he is, we’ll take the support.”

As for Trump’s performance Wednesday – first striking a presidential pose in his meeting and press conference in Mexico with President Enrique Peña Nieto, then a return to the rousing anti-immigrant rhetoric at an evening rally in Arizona – Trumka offered a colorful assessment.

“While he talked like John Wayne last night, he acted like Winnie the Pooh when he was in Mexico,” Trumka said.

The labor leader noted Trump’s comment that he didn’t bring up who would pay for the wall he wants to build along the US-Mexico border. At Trump rallies, he often asks the audience, “And who’s going to pay for the wall?” The response: “Mexico!”

“He was pretty meek and quiet” in his visit to Mexico, said Trumka. “He never even raised who was going to pay for the wall itself. It tells you that he’s not really serious about it, it’s not a serious proposal. We will continue to use what he says to educate our members.”

The big races

Trumka predicted that Democrats would retake the Senate, and named six races as “Tier One” for organized labor’s focus: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, Florida, and Missouri.

Trumka also declined to say whether Clinton, as president, should renominate Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, whom he called “a great candidate.” And he predicted there would not be a vote on Judge Garland during any post-election lame duck session in the Senate.

After that, Trumka said, “We’ll see… I’m not willing to commit at this time, not to go forward on it.”

Garland is viewed as a center-left prospect for the court, and some activists are hoping that as president, Clinton would put forward a more liberal choice to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Stepping back a bit, as Mr. Obama’s presidency winds down, Trumka offered a comparison between him and Clinton.

“President Obama has been a good president for working people,” Trumka said, citing Obama’s appointments to key posts, such as the Department of Labor.

But under Clinton, he added, “probably the difference will be that she will listen a little earlier and a little more carefully than the president did. She is more open to talking to people, before decisions are made. Her circle is wider than the president’s. He currently has a pretty small, closed circle, so I think she’ll get more input in the decisionmaking process.”

“We’ll be full partners in rewriting the rules of the economy,” Trumka said.

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