Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor

Union boss Trumka gets feisty when (sort of) defending Trump on trade

The AFL-CIO president mixed it up with reporters at a Monitor Breakfast that focused on President Trump’s efforts to rewrite US trade relationships.

Richard Trumka points to his 50-year AFL-CIO pin with pride.

“I got this two months ago,” the burly labor leader says, settling in for a Monitor Breakfast with 25 reporters on August 1.

It was in 1968 that Mr. Trumka, still a teenager, followed his father, uncles, and grandfather into the coal mines of southwestern Pennsylvania. Now, he’s in his third term as president of the nation’s largest federation of unions, his signature mustache mostly gray but his spirit undiminished.

Trumka is a familiar face at Monitor Breakfasts. He’s come every year since 2009, usually right before Labor Day. This year, we convened a bit early. But there was no shortage of union matters to discuss - especially with President Trump upending US trade relationships and the midterm elections coming.

Here’s where it gets tricky for Trumka: The AFL-CIO president is largely unhappy with Trump - and came wielding a list of about 50 “anti-worker actions” by the president. But he agrees with Trump’s stated goal of fixing trade practices and sticking up for American workers. Trumka has to tread carefully. The president won a lot of union members’ votes in 2016.

As I wrote in my story afterward, Trumka thinks all the talk of trade wars is “hysteria.” But even as he applauds Trump’s goal, he criticizes the president for using tariffs too broadly.

The two presidents talk, but their relationship is contentious - no surprise there. At the breakfast, Trumka clearly relished mixing it up with reporters. He and Dan Merica of CNN went at it over agricultural tariffs. And when another reporter tried to nudge a long-winded Trumka toward an answer on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Trumka responded impatiently. The labor chief later apologized for being “a bit contentious.”

Trumka also had a funny/tense exchange with Reuters reporter Ginger Gibson that involved Trumka’s dog - and the cost of dog food. That happens at the 58:40 minute-marker on the C-SPAN video of the breakfast, viewable here.

Later, my assistant asked if I should have intervened when sparks flew. No, I said. Our breakfasts are models of civility, but that doesn’t rule out spirited debate, or even a bit of testiness. Trumka is a feisty guy, and he was just being himself.

Our breakfast generated lots of tweets and news stories. My colleague Mark Trumbull wrote about labor’s push to elect Democrats in November. USA Today focused on Trumka’s balancing act on trade. The Washington Examiner reported Trumka’s prediction that voters would overturn Missouri’s “right to work” law Tuesday.

Most provocative was a story in Newsmax that quoted Trumka refusing to rule out an AFL-CIO endorsement of Trump in 2020. “THIS MUST BE A TYPO,” tweeted another union leader. Dave Weigel of the Washington Post, who attended the breakfast, responded via Twitter: “Trumka gave no impression whatsoever that the union could endorse Trump; he just steered around a gotcha question.” Here’s the C-SPAN clip of that moment; judge for yourself.

The Monitor Breakfast now goes on hiatus for a month, but after Labor Day, we come back with a bang: former White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Sept. 5 and Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, chairman of the Republican House campaign committee, on Sept. 7.

As for Trumka, the signoff was easy: “See you next year!”

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