POLITICS

Unions Chastise Michelle Obama Walmart Work And President's Deficit-Cutting Embrace

WASHINGTON -- President Obama's rocky relationship with unions took a few more lumps Wednesday as labor groups pounded both a deficit-cutting proposal he embraced as well as the White House's praise of Walmart.

AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka started by hammering the Gang of Six proposal released Tuesday that would cut the deficit by $3.7 trillion over 10 years, in part by limiting popular middle class deductions for home mortgages, health insurance and retirement savings -- a plan Obama hailed Tuesday.

"Both parties keep telling us that deficit reduction requires 'tough choices' and 'shared sacrifice' and 'taking on sacred cows,'" Trumka said. "But then we keep seeing bipartisan support for plans like the so-called 'Gang of Six' that cut Social Security benefits, kill jobs, give tax incentives for corporations to export good jobs overseas, tax health benefits, and lower tax rates for billionaires and corporations."

"There’s no shared sacrifice here," he added. "The only sacred cows being gored are working people, the middle class, seniors and the poor."

Then the unions hit the White House with a triple-barreled shot for holding a major event with Walmart -- a company that was once a villain for Obama when he ran for office.

In this case, First Lady Michelle Obama praised the retailer for joining in her efforts to combat childhood obesity by opening hundreds of stores in "food deserts" -- neighborhoods that lack outlets that sell decent food or the basic ingredients for healthy eating.

"If parents can't buy the food they need to prepare those meals, if their only options for groceries are in the corner gas station or the local minimart, then all that is just talk," Obama said.

She added praise for Walmart's executives and others for taking the plunge. "They didn’t do this just as executives who care about their company’s bottom lines -- and I’ve met these people," Obama said. "They did it as parents and as grandparents who care about the health of our kids. They did it as leaders who care about our country’s future."

But that did not outweigh what the unions see as Walmart's terrible labor record. The AFL-CIO, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and the SEIU all slammed Walmart's inclusion.

“It’s vital that leaders like First Lady Michelle Obama continue to shine a light on this crisis and that we recognize responsible retailers like Safeway," said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry. "But we cannot ignore the reality that Walmart is America’s chief corporate poverty creator," she added. “Walmart should not be celebrated for false contributions to our communities and glitzy public relations campaigns."

In a joint statement, Trumka and UFCW President Joseph Hansen piled on.

"Today's White House event, which highlights Walmart's expansion in urban areas, undercuts the message of the need for good jobs that can rebuild our middle class," they said. "When Walmart opens in a community, it regularly displaces existing jobs with poverty-level jobs."

Walmart has strongly denied such allegations, and contends it boosts local communities.

Unions are a vital part of the Democratic organizing and campaign structure, and Obama's National Labor Relations Board has taken steps recently that improve unions' ability to organize. But Wednesday's labor unrest suggests the White House's relationship with some of its most important allies will remain strained at times heading into the 2012 election.

White House spokespeople ignored a request for comment.