After trade rift with labor, Obama attempts to heal with union-backed overtime regulation



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WASHINGTON — After the push for trade legislation ruptured relations between the White House and organized labor, President Barack Obama is embarking on something of a repair mission.

Within just hours of business leaders joining him at a White House signing ceremony for the polarizing trade bill, Obama announced a proposed Labor Department rule that would make more workers eligible for overtime. Just like that, the tables were turned — labor praised the move and business leaders decried it.

On Thursday, Obama is traveling to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, to promote the overtime plan in the home district of Rep. Ron Kind, one of the 28 House Democrats who broke party ranks to side with the president and grant him broad trade negotiating powers.

"It is impossible to insulate the U.S. economy and U.S. workers from the broader forces of globalization," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday. "While the president and congressman Kind have a difference of opinion with many leaders of organized labor about this approach, the fact is when it comes to the value of looking out for middle-class families, the leaders of organized labor and the Obama administration agree just about every time."

It's a message the White House hopes resonates with union members and mends a battered relationship between pro-trade Democrats and labor. Union leaders, led by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, fought aggressively against the trade legislation and vowed to pull their support of Democrats who sided with Obama.

That legislation, supported by a majority of Republicans, gave Obama "fast track" trade negotiating authority, which could clear the path for him to complete a 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal. If finalized, Congress would have the right to approve or reject the agreement, but not change or delay it. The deal could be completed in time for Congress to act before the end of the year, giving labor yet another opportunity to flex its muscle over its fear that a trade deal could cost American jobs.

"The trade fight is not over," said Bill Samuel, the AFL CIO's legislative director.

Still, the White House and unions have found plenty of common cause in other areas. Obama has promoted an increase in the federal minimum wage and advocated for paid family and medical leave.

The overtime rule that Obama announced Monday had been long anticipated. It would make up to 5 million more people eligible for overtime by more than doubling the earnings threshold under which salaried workers are entitled to overtime.

But the administration waited until after the trade legislation passed to propose it. The timing avoided what could have been an awkward and perhaps damaging confrontation with the business community while it was promoting the president's trade agenda.

Labor is keeping the issues separate.

"We intend to work with the administration until their last day in office," Samuel said. "We have to do more to address wage inequality than just the overtime rule, but it's key start. The trade agenda pushes us in the other direction."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose president, Tom Donohue, attended the trade signing ceremony Monday, issued a blistering critique of the overtime rule, saying it would result in workers losing benefits, flexibility and advancement opportunities.

"This change is another example of the administration being completely divorced from reality and adding more burdens to employers and expecting them to just absorb the impact," said Randy Johnson, a chamber senior vice president.

Other business groups, whose membership may not be as affected by the overtime provision, took a more measured approach.

Bill Miller, a senior vice president at the Business Roundtable, said his group has "long advocated modernization and we intend to be part of the rule-making to make it as nondestructive as possible."

Still trade is a far more defining policy issue.

Miller said it was "the major centerpiece" of the Obama administration's business agenda.

"The cooperation, the collaboration and the execution was done in a way that we're very hopeful is the blueprint for going forward in the last 18 months of the administration," he said.

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