Big labor is getting tougher with Democrats on trade, but that tack may backfire in the long run.
With the House expected to vote this month on Trade Promotion Authority for President Obama — which would clear the way for the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal — the AFL-CIO is running ads against New York Democrat Kathleen Rice, who represents a very competitive Long Island-based House district.
Her crime: Rice said she was against the trade deal and then turned around and announced her support for it Saturday in an op-ed in the Hill.
"The President has made a compelling case for why the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be different than prior trade deals and why fast-track authority is necessary to getting it done. I’ve done my homework and I agree with him."
That didn't sit well with labor, which had threatened to withhold support for Democrats who back the president's trade agenda. Running ads against politically vulnerable Democrats goes a step further into political hardball territory. Bill Samuels, head of government affairs for the AFL-CIO, explained that Rice's flip-flop is a graver sin in the eyes of labor than just backing Obama.
"Our members are very angry and they expect us to hold these members publicly accountable."
The Rice ad doesn't pull any punches.
The ad is particularly punishing because its tagline "Why should we ever trust Kathleen Rice again?" is the kind of message that could dovetail with future Republican attacks against the lawmaker. The issue of trust, rather than trade, can be used by the GOP.
A recent ad the AFL-CIO ran against Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, whose district is even more competitive than Rice's, was more focused on trade, which most Republicans support.
Rice spokesperson Eric Phillips said the AFL-CIO is wasting its money and could damage its broader agenda by helping Republicans.
"I wouldn't want to be a labor leader and have to explain to my hardworking nurses or truck drivers or tradesmen why we're wasting hundreds of thousands of their families' dollars attacking a progressive Democrat who's with them on nearly every issue but this bill. And I certainly wouldn't want to have to explain to those workers that if their money is successful, they'll get a staunch anti-union representative as their reward."
Perhaps jeopardizing Democratic House seats is worth the risk to labor's overall agenda if unions are able to defeat this trade bill. But with very few Republicans aligned with unions in Congress — and many Republicans trying to crack down on labor rights across the country — burning allies at the altar of a single trade pact may be shortsighted. Whether or not the Trans-Pacific Partnership is enacted, labor will have alienated some of its dwindling number of friends.