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Trade Policy Vote Could Affect Organized Labor's Role In 2016 Election

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Call it one of those conflicts that happen among friends - in this case, Democrats and labor unions. The sore spot is trade and the Obama administration's push for authority to negotiate a big, new trade deal covering the Pacific region. Unions want to stop it. At a speech in Washington today, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said history shows such deals have hurt the little guy.

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RICHARD TRUMKA: America's losers have been America's workers. America's winners have been Wall Street and the investing class.

GONYEA: Trumka and labor are clearly already looking ahead to next year's elections including the presidential race. Joining us to talk about all of this is longtime labor journalist Steven Greenhouse. Steve, hello.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Great to be here, Don.

GONYEA: So this issue, trade - it gets to a long-standing sore spot between unions and recent Democratic presidents. We had Bill Clinton and the North American Free Trade Agreement - he pushed it, they hated it. Now we have Obama and this new deal - the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Here we go again.

GREENHOUSE: Yes, Don. The Obama administration, like the Clinton administration, think trade deals are great. They help bring in cheaper foreign goods that help American consumers. They create investment opportunities for American companies. And they say, look, labor, manufacturing jobs are going to go overseas anyway because labor costs are cheaper in Mexico or China, and it's not trade deals that are doing it. You know, labor unions say no, these trade agreements really accelerate this, and we don't like it, and we want to slow it and maybe stop it.

GONYEA: These are tough fights for unions to win.

GREENHOUSE: Yeah, so when Democratic presidents align themselves with the business community to push through trade agreements, Republicans are generally 95 - 100 percent aboard. Some Democrats are aboard - the Chamber of Commerce, many business groups. And it's extremely hard for labor. Even though it throws its body down to block the whole thing, it's really hard for labor to block this and labor comes out of this kind of feeling proud that it put up a good fight, but it also comes out being very bruised.

GONYEA: Rich Trumka, the AFL-CIO president, has said they'll withhold support, monetary and otherwise from Democrats who vote the wrong way on this. How big of a deal is that?

GREENHOUSE: That's a very unusual move, Don. Democrats rely heavily on labor's money and campaign - labor's foot soldiers knocking on doors, making phone calls to get out the vote. And if labor is really mad at Democratic candidates for supporting the trade deal, it could really hurt Democrats in 2016. I think Democrats hope to pass this fairly soon in the hope that labor will forget about it, you know, a year and a half from now.

GONYEA: Well, let's talk about 2016. Undoubtedly, foot soldiers and phone banks and voter outreach - that's still a very important thing, isn't it, for Democrats - especially in battleground states like Ohio and the Midwest and in places like Nevada?

GREENHOUSE: Absolutely. I think one of the reasons that Obama won in 2008/2012 was that labor really helped him clinch those swing states in the Middle West. But now we're seeing, you know, these swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin approve right-to-work laws which prohibit, you know - prohibit any agreements that require workers to pay dues - pay fees to unions. And that - labor unions fear and Democrats fear - will mean less money going into union treasuries, meaning unions will have less money to help elect Democrats, to help knock on doors, to help make phone calls, to help contribute.

Now, I imagine, Don, that if the election were held in Wisconsin or Michigan right now, many workers - many unions are so riled up about right-to-work that they might really help the Democrats right now. But a year and a half from now, a lot of people might drop out of the unions because of right-to-work. And I think the effect will hurt the Democrats a good deal more a year and a half from now.

GONYEA: And ultimately, that plays into a longer-term trend.

GREENHOUSE: Yes. Various studies have shown that right-to-work laws will reduce union membership by 5 - 10 - 15 percent. And remember, at the same time we're seeing the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, the Club for Growth spending millions and millions of dollars. You know, the Koch Brothers say that their election fund is seeking to put together seven or 800 million dollars for 2016 - twice as much as labor usually spends, and that's just one conservative group. So labor really fears that not only is right-to-work hurting it and weakening it, but it's going to be totally overwhelmed, trounced, swamped by money from the right.

GONYEA: Steve, thanks for joining us.

GREENHOUSE: You're very welcome, Don. Great to be here.

GONYEA: Steven Greenhouse is a longtime labor journalist who recently retired from The New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.