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Labor chief Trumka walks tightrope on Trump and trade

The AFL-CIO leader agrees with President Trump that ‘it's time to rewrite those rules’ on trade, but isn't happy with how Trump has used tariffs. Many union members voted for Trump, putting Trumka in a tight spot. 

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke at a Monitor Breakfast in Washington Wednesday, saying President Trump is "going in the right direction" on trade, although unions differ with the president on many other issues.

Labor leader Richard Trumka has plenty of beefs with President Trump, and happily predicts that Democrats will retake control of the House in November – with a big assist from union members.

Mr. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, also strongly opposes Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. If confirmed, Judge Kavanaugh would “skew the court even more towards corporations and the elite,” Trumka told reporters at a Monitor-hosted breakfast Wednesday.

Trumka, in fact, came to the Monitor Breakfast armed with a four-page handout listing 50 actions by Trump that are “anti-worker” – from the Kavanaugh pick to “rolling back federal safety regulations” to “tax cuts for the rich” that he says will be paid for by working people.

But Trumka isn’t uniformly critical of the president. “I think he’s going in the right direction on trade,” he says.

“International trade is a vital part of the US economy, but powerful corporate interests and secret negotiations, quite frankly, have rigged trade rules and they’ve stacked the deck for the biggest and most unscrupulous corporations at the expense of working people,” Trumka says. “So it's time to rewrite those rules. And I think he understands that that's what should be done.”

Then Trumka qualifies his praise of the president, saying he’s using tariffs too broadly. Tariffs should be used selectively, he says, like a “rifleshot” against countries that are violating the rules – not against Canada, which in his view hasn’t violated the rules.

And what about the farmers negatively affected by China’s retaliatory tariffs, in what many observers call a trade war? Trumka urges a big-picture perspective.

“When you go through this, you’re going to come up with what’s good for the country,” Trumka says. “And sometimes what’s good for the country may be bad for Joe or Jane in the short term, but in the long term, if it’s good for the country, it’s going to be good for everybody.”

“And if we get trade agreements that are fairly enforced, that farmer is going to get a fair shake,” he continues. “They’re going to be able to compete, because the rules are the same for everybody. And when the rules are the same, I believe the farmers in this country are going to do well and they’re going to be able to compete worldwide.”

The Trump administration last week announced a $12 billion bailout for US farms caught in the crossfire, but the subsidy could face a challenge at the World Trade Organization. And it triggered a negative response from some lawmakers, especially Republicans, who say farmers want “trade not aid.” Some lawmakers, too, demanded protections for industries in their home states.

Trumka thinks the “trade war” rhetoric is overblown. “The hysteria about ‘there’s a trade war and the sky is falling’ is simply inaccurate and does a disservice to the country,” he says.

And, he notes, the final resolution of all the nation’s trade disputes remains to be seen. Trumka says he supports a rewrite of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, “if it’s a good agreement.” If it isn’t, he adds, “then we’d have to oppose that as well.”

Trumka’s alignment with Trump, at least on trade – and the president’s popularity among some union constituencies – elicited a question about whether the AFL-CIO might possibly endorse Trump for reelection in 2020. The labor leader, now in his ninth year at the helm of the nation’s largest trade federation, did not rule it out.

“We will consider every candidate,” Trumka said. But he quickly made clear that a Trump endorsement was highly unlikely.

In 2016, union members were looking for someone who would “shake up the status quo,” Trumka said. “And some of them thought they found that candidate in Donald Trump and other like-minded politicians who promised to lift up workers and rein in Wall Street. Today, nearly all of those promises are either broken or unfulfilled.”

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