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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Nov 5, 2014, 3:00 pm

Richard Trumka Sounds Optimistic Note In Spite Of Republican Midterm Shellacking

BY Cole Stangler

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The AFL-CIO president said that despite massive Democratic losses, voters strongly backed a progressive economic agenda. (AFL-CIO)  

The Democrats suffered historic defeats yesterday—losing control of the Senate in addition to key governors’ races across the country—but the president of the nation’s largest labor federation remains upbeat.

“Democrats took a licking yesterday, but the workers’ agenda sure didn’t,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters gathered at a press conference Wednesday morning. “Voters spoke very clearly in yesterday’s election. They want an economy that works for them and works for their families.”

Trumka argued that many Democrats lost because they neglected to focus on core economic issues: “The economy should have been a major asset for Democrats,” he said. Instead, voters were “duped” because they heard more on economic issues from Republicans.

“It was a lousy message,” the labor leader said of the GOP platform, “but it was presented clearly and strongly, and in tough times people responded to that because they’re hurting.”

The AFL-CIO released polling data that, at least in part, backed up that point: Voters often selected candidates whose economic views they did not share, according to an election night survey conducted by Hart Research Associates.

While voters in 11 key Senate battleground states backed Republican candidates by a 49-47 margin, a clear majority of those polled expressed support for a broadly left-wing economic agenda: 75 percent said they want more spending on public schools, 73 percent favor hiking taxes on overseas corporate profits, 62 percent support increasing Social Security benefits, 62 percent want to raise taxes on the wealthy, and 62 percent back raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10.

Trumka pointed to three cases in which union-backed Democrats who focused on economic issues were able to win handily: Al Franken in Minnesota, Jeff Merkley in Oregon and Gary Peters in Michigan.

However, several other Democratic Senate candidates endorsed by labor—and who arguably championed the AFL-CIO’s economic agenda—came up short, including Mark Udall in Colorado, Bruce Braley in Iowa and Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky.

Georgia Senate candidate David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General, boasted of his outsourcing record on the campaign trail. But the Republican still coasted to an eight-point victory.

Meanwhile, a slew of union-backed nominees for governor lost badly. Tea Party-allied governors in Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Maine and Michigan—each of whom flaunted their distaste for organized labor—pulled out comfortable victories. And  gubernatorial candidates and incumbents in liberal strongholds like Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois were upset by Republicans.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Trumka also fielded questions on what the GOP’s pending Senate takeover could spell for Social Security and the environment.

Some worry the ascendant Republican majority could reignite momentum for a so-called “grand bargain,” an elusive budget compromise once championed by the White House that could include cuts in Social Security benefits.

“I don’t know what a grand bargain would be,” Trumka said. “If it’s a good grand bargain, we would support it. If it’s a bad grand bargain, we would be against it.”

In These Times asked the labor leader if he backs potential legislation in Congress to approve the now-stalled Keystone XL pipeline. The GOP-dominated Senate now boasts a filibuster-proof majority in support of the pipeline.

“The answer is yes,” Trumka said. “We want to get every jobs issue that we can up, and as many jobs created as we can to get the economy going.”

Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him @colestangler.

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