The loss of Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in the Arkansas Senate Democratic
primary runoff election resulted in a rare outburst of intense,
sometimes nasty, griping between the White House and the organized
labor community on Tuesday night.
Shortly after Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) emerged victorious, an
anonymous White House aide began spreading word that the President
Obama's political team thought that the money unions had spent on
Halter's candidacy was a massive waste and damaging to the party.
"Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toiled on a pointless exercise," the unnamed official said to
Politico's Ben Smith. "If even half that total had been well-targeted
and applied in key House races across this country, that could have
made a real difference in November."
Another senior Democrat (who also would not be quoted by name)
echoed the point in an exchange with the Huffington Post. "Labor is
humiliated," the source said. "$10 million flushed down the toilet at a
time when Democrats across the country are fighting for their lives,
they look like absolute idiots."
It was a remarkably blunt dumping on the unions. And, in the
process, it provided one of the most telling revelations as to how
frayed the relationship between Obama and the modern labor movement
truly is. Up until now the two parties have generally aired their
disagreements over policy and politics in private, with scant public
acknowledgment that friction was building below the surface.
But it clearly is there, in part because of legislative
disappointments, but mainly because of labor's decision to go after
moderate and conservative Democrats. Asked to explain why the White
House would so quickly disparage the labor unions (namely the SEIU and
AFL-CIO) after an embarrassing primary outcome, another White House
aide said that "folks are just tired," noting that the administration
has also taken a heaping of criticism from speakers at the progressive
Campaign for America's Future conference taking place this week in
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Labor, of course, found the verbal lashing genuinely appalling, and
a confirmation of their larger philosophy to act in their own political
"We are not an arm of the White House or the DNC or a political
party," said AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale. "We work on issues. And if
we feel like someone is standing up for working families, we support
them, and if they don't, we won't support it. In the past, people would
have assumed that was talk, but now we have backed that up with
"Is the lesson they are taking out of tonight that they can go after
labor and anonymously trash us and we will put our tail in between our
legs and slink home? That ain't happening," Vale added.
Driving home the point that the White House was cravenly hiding
behind the cloak of anonymity in their attacks, the AFL-CIO spokesman
signed off the conversation with the following: "My name is Eddie Vale
of the AFL-CIO and I'm proud to fight for working families and I don't
hide behind anonymous quotes."
These are the most acrimonious exchanges between the unions and the
White House in recent memory, and it stands to reason that things will
get worse before they get better. Labor, after all, seems even more
inclined now to support what one official described as "accountability
candidates" -- even if those candidates aren't the administration's
As proof Vale pointed to comments offered early in the day by the
AFL-CIO's president Richard Trumka, who stressed that it was entirely
unlikely that the labor organization would support Blanche Lincoln in
the general election (the decision will ultimately be made by union
members in Arkansas). Another labor source said that the SEIU would
likely be sitting out the general as well. "How in the world can labor
turn around and support her?"