As President Obama works this year to improve his relationship with the business community and address the nation's fiscal challenges, the labor movement is issuing a challenge to him: don't forget about workers or the middle class.
Washington is "having the wrong conversation," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said today in the capitol city. "We don't need to settle for stagnation and ever spiraling inequality."
While unemployment continues to hover close to 10 percent, Trumka says leaders in Washington should focus on making job-creating investments in infrastructure and education, rather than focusing on fiscal austerity.
"We live in an Alice in Wonderland political climate," Trumka said. "In this topsy-turvy world, the same leaders who fought so valiantly to cut taxes for the wealthy turn right around and lecture us about the imminent bankruptcy of Social Security. Only at the Mad Hatter's tea party does that make sense."
And while Trumka said it is largely Republicans who are "giving up on America" by rejecting government spending, he called out the president for coming down too softly on the industries that led to the financial crisis. Mr. Obama is "about as pro-business as any president," Trumka said.
"All the firms have record profits, and they're paying the lowest taxes they've paid in decades," he said. "What more do you want from a president?"
The president in recent weeks has given indications he plans to follow a fiscally moderate course in the next year and intends to repair his icy relations with business. Yesterday, he announced he was ordering a-- an order that Trumka said amounted in large part to a "distraction."
Today, Mr. Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao are meeting at the White House with business leaders including Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt. Trumka lamented the credence paid to business leaders while the 9/11 first responders struggled for years to pass legislation for more federal assistance to treat their health problems.
"How did we come to the point where our country's ruling class thinks that firefighters... and teachers and nurses are the problem, and people like Lloyd Blankfein and Rupter Murdoch are the solution?" he asked.
Trumka challenged Mr. Obama to change the national discourse when he delivers his State of the Union address before Congress next week -- to issue "a call to action, a call to invest in our future, to create jobs, to be the country we can and must be."
"The debate about our future begins and ends concretely with the question of jobs," he continued. "I believe the 2012 election will be fundamentally about jobs."
Trumka also warned that scaling back entitlement program would spell political disaster. "Outside the looking glass, the American people would never forgive their leaders for cutting Social Security or Medicare," he said.
Many are anticipating that in his State of the Union, Mr. Obama will give recommendations for addressing the national deficit and debt. Some are speculating he may suggest some modifications to Social Security, as recommended by his bipartisan deficit commission last year.
Trumka also warned against fiscal austerity at the state and local levels. The AFL-CIO is increasingly working at the state and local levels to push for infrastructure investments, but he said Republicans elected last November, like Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, are "attacking the very idea of the American middle class."
He chastised Walker and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels for rejecting high-speed rail projects and "turning their backs on jobs, turning their backs on their own state's future."
Ultimately, he said, jobs created will be the "yardstick" by which every politician at the state and federal level is judged.