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Labor braces for attack should GOP sweep in November


AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says he fears that Republicans would do to labor unions at a national level what they’ve sought achieve in the states should Mitt Romney win the presidency and the GOP control Congress come next January.

Underscoring the stakes for organized labor in this fall’s election, the head of one of the nation’s largest unions described for NBC News what he said was a strategy to strengthen labor in the long term, and guard against Republican efforts to curb workers' rights.

“We’re not looking at a single election anymore; we’re actually looking at three elections: the elections in 2012, the elections that will happen in 2014 and the elections that will happen in 2016,” Trumka said on Monday.

T.J. Kirkpatrick / Getty Images

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announces a boycott of Hyatt Hotels during a press conference July 23 in Washington, D.C.

It's part of a shift by the AFL-CIO to a broader focus beyond politics and this year's presidential election, just the most high-profile of a series of political battles endured by labor this year. The most bruising fight played out in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall effort spurred by his work to enact legislation stripping public sector unions of most of their collective bargaining rights, and forcing them to make greater contributions to their benefits plans.

Labor lost in Wisconsin; Trumka said that the national labor movement deferred mostly to local officials on waging that campaign, and suggested he might have done things differently had he been in charge. And the AFL-CIO’s political director, Michael Podhorzer, pointed to a 2011 vote to overturn an Ohio law on collective bargaining similar to Wisconsin’s as more instructive.

But beyond those two states, labor has been made into somewhat of a scapegoat for state budget crises by Republican governors and has been forced to accept increased concessions.

And if Republicans capture control of Washington in this fall's election, the AFL-CIO said it’s bracing for that same fight on the national level.

“If there’s a Republican trifecta, of course they will go after labor. We’re the last line of defense,” said Trumka. “So they’re going to do what they did in the states. In 20-some states they attacked us because they saw us as standing in the way.”

Trumka said he would expect, at a minimum, for Romney to pick business-friendly officials to sit on the National Labor Relations Board. Romney wasn’t the most unfriendly of Republicans as governor of Massachusetts – “I wouldn’t say we called him ‘Uncle Mitt,’ but it was a much different relationship. He wasn’t antagonistic, he wasn’t hostile,” said Trumka – but, like the rest of the Republican Party, has shifted to the right over time.

Moreover, the AFL-CIO president argued that the conservative drift within the GOP has purged any moderates with which the union could partner. He named only two Republican lawmakers — New Jersey Rep. Frank LoBiondo and Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette — as reliable allies, and said he considered centrists like Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe (R) and Susan Collins (R) as "no longer moderates."

But the union is also serving notice to Democrats that they shouldn't automatically expect the AFL-CIO's support, either. The AFL-CIO has endorsed President Obama's re-election bid, but winning a second term wasn't the union's top priority, Trumka said. Their top three priorities, he said, were "jobs, jobs and more jobs."

To that end, the AFL-CIO is preparing an economic agenda for release on July 31 that includes the litany of priorities the union views as important for boosting employment.

"It’ll give us an opportunity to say to people: here’s one vision for the economy, here’s another vision," he said. "Which of these two do you endorse? If it’s this one, good luck, if it’s this one, then we can do business together and help you get elected."

But political observers shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that the union has entirely abandoned its political advocacy.

The AFL-CIO has had core staff in six states — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida — on the ground and working for months. And a labor-affiliated super PAC has allowed the AFL-CIO and other unions to communicate more directly with nonunion employees (despite the fact that Trumka noted they oppose the Citizens United ruling that gave way to the rise of super PACs).

"This is going to be a battle of the airwaves versus a battle of the grassroots," Trumka said. "We’ll see what happens."