The nation's top labor leader on Friday said President Obama has allowed talk of attacking federal deficits to overrun his message on jobs and economic growth, while hitting Fox News for being anti-union.
"I think he made a strategic blunder whenever he confused his stimulus/jobs agenda" by letting deficits dominate the conversation, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said of Mr. Obama in response to questions at the National Press Club.
The unions have long been a critical component of the Democratic Party base, but Mr. Trumka's remarks suggested the umbrella labor group could take a more independent stance in 2012.
Mr. Trumka praised the president for supporting additional taxpayer money for infrastructure projects, aid to the states and loans for small- and medium-sized businesses. But he hit Mr. Obama for his recent support of long-stalled trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia.
"I think putting the Colombia free trade agreement up [for a vote in Congress] will be a strategic blunder," the labor chief said, citing violence against workers in the Latin American nation.
If the AFL-CIO decides to support Mr. Obama in his re-election - Mr. Trumka said members "haven't decided who we're supporting next year" - the president's backing of trade deals won't lessen that support but will make it more difficult to promote him, he conceded.
Mr. Trumka also sounded off on the media, saying he regrets that money-starved news outlets don't have enough resources to do the investigative reporting they once did. He took particular aim at Fox News, accusing the cable news network of being anti-union at a time when he said organized labor is under attack across the country as governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere seek to trim back bargaining rights.
"Networks like Fox are really entertainment," he said. "By and large, the network and the programming is awfully slanted away from working people and that's a tragedy.
Mr. Trumka's speech was seen as something of a warning shot to lawmakers ahead of next year's elections, in which he threatened to withhold support to candidates that oppose the labor agenda. He also said the union movement is revamping its political efforts to be more active year-round as opposed to ramping up its political activities before a particular election cycle and then winding them down.
"We're actually retooling our entire political program ... in a way that creates power for workers," he said. "We're going to take a real look at who stands for workers and who doesn't."
Critics of labor unions seized on Mr. Trumka's remarks as evidence he's seeking "payback" from Democrats.
"Today's threats by Richard Trumka are nothing more than a plea for more bailouts from bureaucrats in government on the backs of American job creators," Fred Wszolek of the Workforce Fairness Institute said in a statement. "Big Labor expended nearly half a billion dollars electing President Obama and they expect 'payback,' plain and simple."
Asked about concerns that the AFL-CIO's past threats to abandon Democrats who oppose their priorities ring hollow, Mr. Trumka replied flatly, "Ask Blanche Lincoln" - a reference to the former Democratic senator from Arkansas who was lost to a Republican last November after unions targeted her in a hard-fought primary.
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