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Top Union Officials Air Tensions in Obama Meeting

Labor leaders who have been among President Barack Obama’s most reliable — but recently alienated — supporters went to the White House on Friday to air their grievances and discuss future fiscal policy.

The president, along with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, met in the White House’s Roosevelt Room with a dozen leaders of some of the nation’s largest unions.

“We had a good conversation with President Obama about the economic crisis and the importance of the labor movement in rebuilding the economy and the middle class,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement released after the session. “The President recognizes the need to invest in jobs and strengthen the role of collective bargaining to ensure that we have a recovery where the benefits are broadly shared.”

According to one union official, several leaders came to the meeting armed with concerns they wanted addressed. The official said that despite the big Democratic majorities in Congress, the president pushed through a tax bill that his supporters oppose. In addition, the president upset his labor allies by negotiating a free trade agreement with South Korea. At the same time, Obama could not prod lawmakers to approve collective bargaining and card-check legislation in the 111th Congress.

“They had a lot on their minds,” the labor union official said. “They had a lot of questions and a lot they wanted to discuss.”

The official, who was not in the meeting, said the union leaders wanted to press Obama about how he expected to push his agenda in a less favorable political environment next year.

According to a White House statement, the president discussed steps taken to prevent a second Great Depression and “reinforced the essential role the union movement plays in growing the economy, creating good jobs on Main Street, and keeping America competitive.”

“The President reiterated his commitment to working in partnership with the labor community as we tackle these challenges, along with his support for policies that protect working Americans and support the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain,” according to the White House statement.

The meeting’s attendees included Trumka, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, United Auto Workers President Bob King, American Federation of State, County Municipal Employees President Gerald McEntee and Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said earlier this week that the meeting with labor leaders was part of a series of White House sessions that also included a sit-down with corporate CEOs and economists.

“We’re heading into an important year in our economy,” he said. “And the president wants to hear from a series of perspectives on what their ideas are.”

The Friday session with union leaders came just before the president signed the $858 billion tax cut measure that he brokered with Republicans. The measure extended Bush-era tax cuts, including those for the wealthiest Americans.

While AFL-CIO officials have said the tax package has some provisions they can support, such as the extension of unemployment benefits, they have strongly opposed the overall measure because it provides tax benefits to upper-income people.

On the AFL-CIO blog, Trumka said the deal came at a “terrible price because it rewards obstructionists with huge tax breaks for the nation’s richest and throws away precious resources we could use to revive our economy.”

In an e-mail to union activists, Trumka said the tax deal was “the initial battle working people will face between now and 2012.” And he predicted that “lawmakers who fought to get tax cuts for millionaires will come after Social Security and Medicare in the name of deficit reduction and ‘shared sacrifice.’”

The labor unions’ displeasure with Obama does not end with tax policy. They have also been unhappy with the president’s increasing willingness to consider free trade agreements. Earlier this month, the AFL-CIO came out against the South Korea FTA, which the administration had just completed negotiating.

And the unions representing federal workers blasted the president’s recommendation earlier this month of a salary freeze for the federal work force.

But in general, organized labor has been among Obama’s biggest supporters. Labor organizations have poured financial resources not only into his election effort but also into advocacy campaigns that helped push through the president’s health care and financial reform measures.

The president has given union insiders a number of high-level administration posts, including the controversial recess appointment of Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Becker was opposed by Republicans because of his close ties to unions.

But Obama was not able to push through one of labor’s top legislative priorities, the card-check measure, which would make it easier for unions to organize.

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