Friday, May 14, 2010

Rich Trumka: Beast

Reading things like this make me like AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka even more than I already do:
A more contentious moment came during a gathering of union leaders in mid-January. By that point, the president's preference for a tax on high-cost health care plans was well known. But he had done little to temper labor's protests. The friction was obvious. Not only would the tax hit negotiated union contracts, Obama himself had launched blistering attacks on the proposal when it was part of Sen. John McCain's platform in 2008. (Axelrod would tell associates it was the campaign ad that tested best with voters).

On January 11, the president brought a group of more than a half-dozen union presidents to the White House to remove any lingering doubt. "There will be an excise tax," he declared, according to one attendee.

"I'm committed to doing it," another attendee had him saying. "And I need you guys to be on board."

The crowd wasn't sold. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, seated across from the president, shot back that the tax was "bad policy and bad politics" pointing to the percentage of middle-class workers (even the non-unionized) who would be hit. Anna Burger, the executive director of union campaign arm, Change to Win, brought up Deb Lovell, a state worker in New Hampshire and wife of a chronic myelogenous leukemia patient, who despite earning $30,000-a-year salary would see her health care plan taxed under the proposal.

The President conceded that taxing people like Lovell was not the design and promised to look into Burger's point. But he continued pitching the tax as necessary for keeping health care costs under control. "He was persuaded to do health care, I believe, by Peter Orszag [the budget director], not Ted Kennedy [the moralist former Senator]," is how one White House ally put it.

Trumka refused to let the argument go, pushing back on Obama point by point. Several people briefed on what happened said that after the discussion ended other union leaders told Trumka that he came off as "disrespectful" to the president. To which he replied: "If telling him the truth is disrespectful, then I have to be disrespectful."

At an impasse, Obama scheduled a meeting for the next day with the same group. But in this one, his deputies would lead the conversation, and union staffers were not permitted to attend (the White House thought that staffers would expand the conservation to topics beyond the excise tax). This didn't diminish the fireworks. As Jason Furman, the White House economist and excise tax booster, continued to push the proposal, Trumka reached a tipping point. "Don't fucking bullshit me," he demanded.
It takes tremendous courage to stand up to the president of the United States, especially when he's an ally that you helped elect. Although we didn't win the fight, I'm extremely encouraged that things at least got that heated. It's kind of comforting to hear that some of the people involved in the debate were as angry as I was at the time.

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