WASHINGTON — The head of the nation's largest labor federation on Tuesday urged union leaders to step up support for Democrats in the November elections, despite some frustration with the pace of gains on labor's agenda.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said he wants unions to recapture the sense of enthusiasm that helped propel President Barack Obama into office two years ago.
"We know you're angry," Trumka said in a speech to the federation's leaders and political staff. "We know you're frustrated. We know we haven't achieved everything that we worked for. But we've made progress and we have to keep it going."
The AFL-CIO plans to spend more than $50 million over the next 90 days to help Democrats in congressional and gubernatorial races in 20-23 states. Its top target states are California, Illinois, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Trumka's comments kicked off a three-day training session for AFL-CIO state political directors and staffers who will coordinate the federation's massive get-out-the-vote effort leading up to the Nov. 2 elections. Obama will address the federation's executive council on Wednesday.
Trumka praised Obama for creating new jobs, overhauling the health care system and passing tough new Wall Street reforms. He said voters should blame Republicans for standing in the way of further reforms.
"We have to remind them we have to save our anger for the corporate lapdogs who made this mess and the Republicans in the Senate who are determined to keep us in it," Trumka said.
Part of the frustration unions feel is driven by the high expectations they had for Obama and a Democratic majority in Congress to more quickly revive a moribund economy. There is also lingering irritation that Democrats could not muster enough support to pass legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize workers.
"There were high hopes that Congress would do more to create jobs," AFL-CIO deputy political director Mike Podhorzer said in an interview following Trumka's remarks.
Unions hoped Obama's stimulus plan would be larger and that it would be followed by a second job stimulus package, Podhorzer said. They were also surprised it took so much effort just to extend unemployment benefits for those out of work.
"What we learned is that the other side is very energized," Podhorzer said. "They're going to be out there working and that means we have to be out there too."
Trumka stressed the need to bridge the "enthusiasm gap" that exists between progressive activists in the Democratic Party and "the right wing radicals, the corporate conservatives, the tea party fanatics and the talk show fans."
"We've all come back from contract negotiations where we didn't get everything that we wanted, but we made great gains," Trumka said. "And we can say the same about President Obama's first year-and-a-half."