Labor Steamed at Debt Deal, But Do They Blame Obama?

PHOTO: President Barack Obama meets with staff to discuss ongoing debt talks, in the Oval Office, July 11, 2011.PlayPete Souza/Official White House Photo
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President Obama met for more than hour with the executive committee of the AFL-CIO Tuesday morning, the same day he would sign the deal raising the debt ceiling, averting disaster, but angering the labor movement—a core Democratic constituency.

Labor leaders are concerned about the $2.4 trillion deficit reduction plan, most notably the "super committee" made up of 12 members of Congress - six Republicans and six Democrats – tasked with recommending more cuts to the U.S. debt. The committee could lead to cuts to entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, probably the biggest worry about the deal to the labor movement. Unions are also concerned that there were not tax increases, a win for congressional Republicans.

Although they are upset about the plan, with one lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees saying they "hate it," most of the labor organizations that spoke with ABC News believe that Obama and Democratic members of Congress had to support the legislation to avert disaster and were cautious not to criticize the president, instead blaming Republican members of Congress. But some said the president could have gone a different route.

Former president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Andy Stern used more pointed language, telling ABC News that the president needs to work on the "reality" of getting Americans back to work including working on a jobs bill with Congress, organizing "his administration to create a sense of urgency" about the need for job creation, and "work with the Senate particularly to do everything in his power to turn the focus on jobs."

"I would say we had three situations where the president thought he had a plan, each time he failed. He tried to use reason. He now realizes he's dealing with unreasonable people," Stern said. "The issue is he needs to do something differently and to me that is be serious, committed, and focused not on the rhetoric of jobs but putting into place the reality of job creation."

Stern added, "I think people want to believe the president understands that solving the debt ceiling didn't create one more job, it actually will cause a loss of jobs and people are looking to him to lead."

Stern said Obama is working with Republicans who "want him to fail," citing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's pledge to make sure Obama is a one-term president.

"The president is not dealing with people who have a reasoned approach to solve problems. Many want to remove him electorally from office, and they want him to fail," Stern said. "People want to defeat Obama and he wants to respond reasonably and do what is good for the country. This is hardball, not pattycake. People have different motivations and conversations."

Stern added that the White House would benefit from some new advice, "I think the president has a very strong group of advisors that he feels very comfortable with and they think they have a plan. I'm always willing to provide my advice, but I think right now they feel like they know what they want to do, despite indications that they need someone's new thinking."

When leaving the White House, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka did not criticize the president when talking to reporters, but laid the blame of his unhappiness with the deal squarely on the shoulders of House Republicans.

"When you've got people that are suicidal in the House of Representatives, that don't care about the economy or creating jobs, that makes it more difficult," Trumka told reporters after the meeting, according to Bloomberg News.

Trumka said the executive committee—made up of labor unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO—told the president that job creation has to be his number one concern.

"That has to be his first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth priorities," Trumka said, calling the meeting "productive."

The head of the nation's biggest labor federation added, "I don't think anybody quite knows what it is and its effect going forward, the effect on job creation," referring to the debt deal.

Alison Omens, AFL-CIO spokesperson, said the meeting was a "conversation about the urgent need to focus on job-creating policies that will propel working people and our economy forward."

Omens said the union leaders spoke with the president about "working together for solutions that will put people back to work."

"Working people are desperate to hear how we're going to focus on the real economy and the jobs crisis and President Obama conveyed his own feeling of urgency around dealing with the jobs crisis," Omens said.

The same day they met the AFL-CIO released a statement blasting the deal for not helping create jobs and stressing the legislation, also called the Budget Control Act of 2011, hurts working families. Among other points, the statement says the bill "virtually" ensures that "Congress will spend another four months focused on budget-cutting instead of jobs and investment in the future. This means the fight to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid has just begun."

"The imbalanced budget deal is a product of extortion by House Republicans and is out of step with the American people–and is even more right-wing, in fact, than the average Republican," the statement reads.

The current president of the SEIU, which has over two million members, Mary Kay Henry, released a statement on the legislation calling it a "raw deal for working people and the 30 million Americans who are still looking for work." Calling it "morally wrong legislation" the statement says it "does not end the threat to the millions of children and seniors who rely on Medicaid and Medicare for their healthcare or the workers who care for them."

Henry goes after the Republican leadership in Congress saying that Speaker John Boehner, McConnell, Rep. Eric Cantor, and congressional Republicans "degraded our national discourse by fighting tooth and nail to protect tax giveaways to corporations and millionaires by taking any type of truly shared sacrifice off the table."

A source in the labor movement said despite the anger it won't affect how endorsements are handled whether it be on the local level up to the president, but said the entire community is "going to watch the super committee very closely, that's where a lot of our concerns lie" worrying that the "process will open the door later on to entitlement cuts."

The president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees or AFSCME, a member of the AFL-CIO, Gerald W. McEntee called the debt deal "forced upon the White House and the nation represents a form of economic malpractice."

"At the least, it will slow economic recovery and impose more joblessness, wage cuts and hardship on America's working families. The tea party held the nation hostage in order to advance an extreme ideology—at the expense of what is good for the nation and our economy," McEntee said in the statement.

AFSCME did not persuade members of congress to vote against the bill, but the union's legislative director, Charles Loveless told ABC News they believe the president was "backed into a corner" and they don't blame him, but he blasted tea party Republicans.

"There was a very real risk of the government defaulting on their debt obligation and they (Obama and congressional Democrats) were between a rock and a hard place. Democrats were trying to be responsible dealing with the crisis. On the other hand tea party legislators were willing to throw away the economy to satisfy their ideological goals," Loveless said. "I've heard disappointment from a number of people and that Obama could have been stronger, but at the end of the day he had very little room to maneuver I think."

Loveless added that the lack of tax increases is also a problem and "that revenues are ultimately part of any global solution to our deficit crisis."

Loveless stressed that they are hoping that tax increases can still be achieved during the joint congressional committee or super committee.

A lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees also went after Congressional Republicans saying they "feel betrayed" by GOP House members who "decided to take the American people hostage to get their way in a budget agreement."

The labor lobbyist added that it won't change the way they endorse lawmakers or even Obama saying the legislation "ended up being a hostage choice" and the president and congressional Democrats had a "gun to their head" while negotiating the plan.