Keystone aside, labor shows Obama love

US President Barack Obama arrives to speak at the Building and Construction Trades Department Legislative Conference in Washington on April 30, 2012. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages

Obama
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages

(CBS News) Whatever tension may exist between President Obama and organized labor was set aside Monday, when the president spoke to union workers about the need to invest in infrastructure, casting Republicans as the main obstacle in the way of his plans.

"Four more years!" union members chanted when the president took the stage at the legislative conference of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department. One man yelled out, "You're doing a great job, Mr. President."

"It is good to be back among friends," Mr. Obama said.

Indeed, unions spent about $400 million to help elect Mr. Obama in 2008, and the AFL-CIO last month officially endorsed his re-election, putting its significant resources behind the president. Unions have backed the president for, among other things, his stimulus measures aimed at creating more construction work and his support for collective bargaining rights, which have come under attack at the state level in recent years.

Still, the president and labor unions don't see eye to eye on everything, and Republicans today hammered the president for holding up the pending Keystone XL oil pipeline project, in spite of the support it has from some labor organizations.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus wrote in an op-ed in the Huffington Post Monday that "the Keystone XL pipeline is one issue we can all agree on -- that is, unless you're President Obama in an election year."

Priebus pointed out that the Building and Construction Trades Department -- the very group Mr. Obama addressed Monday morning -- has called the pipeline a "lifeline." The organization has touted the benefits of the project and urged people to lobby the White House on behalf of the pipeline.

The AFL-CIO as a whole has not taken a stance on the pipeline since unions within the organization have taken different positions on it.

Construction has begun on the Southern leg of the pipeline, but the Northern portion still awaits federal approval. Mr. Obama has suggested he could back the full project once it has been subject to review.

Mr. Obama didn't mention the pipeline in his remarks Monday, but he did blast Republican leaders in the House for holding up a highway spending bill that, he said, "could guarantee work for millions of construction workers."

"The easiest bill to pass in Washington used to be get roads and bridges built, because it's not like only Democrats are allowed to use these things," the president said to laughs.

The president noted he visited a dilapidated bridge in House Speaker John Boehner's Ohio district to show why Congress should invest in infrastructure. Taking a shot at Boehner, he said, "You know, maybe he doesn't drive anymore. Maybe he didn't notice how messed up it was."

Mr. Obama acknowledged that his life has also changed since moving to Washington, perhaps putting him out of touch with construction workers.

"I've got to be careful here because, you know, [I] just barely can hammer a nail into the wall," he said. "My wife's not impressed with my skills when it comes to fixing up the house. Right now, fortunately I'm in a rental, so I don't end up having to do a lot of work."

He did, however, stress that his ideals are more in line with those of union workers. Republicans, by contrast, are only interested in "dismantling unions."

"After all you've done to build and protect the middle class, they make the argument you're responsible for the problems facing the middle class," Mr. Obama said. "Somehow that makes sense to 'em. You know, that's not what I believe. I believe our economy is stronger when workers are getting paid good wages and good benefits."

While unions may take issue with Mr. Obama's leadership on the Keystone pipeline -- or with his stance on issues like the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement -- AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has maintained that Mr. Obama is still "the best out there."

"Best for us, best for working people, best for the recovery of this country," he said when his organization endorsed the president.

The AFL-CIO is keeping up its campaigning for the president this week, sending millions of union families a video casting Republican Mitt Romney as candidate running for the top 1 percent of society.

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