Audie Cornish talks to Mary Kay Henry, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), about Tuesday's conference call between President Obama and union leaders about the "fiscal cliff." The SEIU and other groups maintain that tax cuts for the middle class must be extended and that richer Americans must pay more taxes. They say the president expressed his support and commitment in their meeting today.
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now to Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, known as the SEIU. She was at the White House meeting today. Welcome to the program.
MARY KAY HENRY: Thanks, Audie. Glad to be here.
CORNISH: Now, we heard from the AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka today. He said that the meeting was very, very positive, and it sounds like labor leaders and President Obama are essentially on the same page when it comes to extending the middle-class tax cuts.
HENRY: Yeah, we think that the voters sent a very loud and clear message to our elected officials that we need to restore the American middle class, and job one is for Congress to pass relief for the middle class.
CORNISH: Now, less was said publicly about possible changes to entitlements: Social Security, Medicare. Is that a sign that labor and the president are not on the same page?
HENRY: Well, we were unified, labor and community organizations that were in the room with this in making it clear that the election was about the wealthiest needing to pay their fair share, restoring the American middle class, making sure that we did not do further cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. We are united in understanding that we have to keep campaigning across this nation to make sure that the middle-class tax cuts are extended and that Congress passes that bill now.
CORNISH: Now, the president is also meeting with business leaders this week, and we've heard from a group of CEOs called - under the Campaign to Fix the Debt, they call themselves, that they want to look to the Simpson-Bowles commission as a starting point, and that's a commission that certainly looked at proposals to, say, raise the retirement age or make other tweaks to entitlement programs. Are you or your organization willing to consider that?
HENRY: Well, we reject the Simpson-Bowles approach in this moment when the rest of the nation has just declared in the November 6th election that we need to make progress by investing in getting people back to work by growing the economy from the middle out by making sure that we reduce the debt through growing our way out of this. So we really think it's time to think about what the voters just said, November 6th, and to move the country forward.
CORNISH: Are you essentially arguing that the nation has rejected compromise, that most people have said this is going to be a case where there's going to be raised revenue, perhaps in the form of increased taxes, and also tweaks to domestic programs and in - therefore entitlement programs? I mean, why isn't - why can't that be on the table? Are you taking it completely off the table?
HENRY: Well, I think compromise is important in a situation when everybody has enough food to eat, where people can make ends meet by working one job, and that's just not the situation for the majority of Americans. And so I think that what we are called to do as a nation is what the president is leading on, saying that we need to extend the tax cuts for the middle class, we need the wealthiest to pay their fair share and to invest in getting America back to work through good jobs. And that is the way to continue the economic recovery.
CORNISH: And if those tweaks still aren't enough - I mean, the math doesn't add up to do those things alone - what are you prepared to give on?
HENRY: I have to tell you, Audie, it makes no sense to me to have that conversation in an environment where it is not clear that we can break the logjam on the question of the wealthiest paying their fair share. And that is the beginning of understanding whether there's an agreement can be reached. And that's why I'm unwilling to acknowledge what you are asking me to do in terms of compromising on spending cuts because it seems that it's not the top priority for getting the economy - the economic recovery to be injected in the way that the president has said.
CORNISH: So the tax question is the key to you here?
HENRY: Yes. Taxes and jobs.
CORNISH: Mary Kay Henry is head of the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
HENRY: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.