WASHINGTON D.C. – In what could be described as a warning shot across the bow of Democrats, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on May 20 warned that the role of organized labor is “not to build the power of a political party or a candidate. It is to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our country.”
Trumka was short on specifics, but he was at least announcing a course correction for organized labor in U.S. politics. His address was billed by the AFL-CIO billed as a “major speech” before the National Press Club.
“It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside – the outcome is the same either way,” said Trumka, leader of the umbrella labor federation serving 55 unions. “If leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working families’ interests, working people will not support them. This is where our focus will be – now, in 2012 and beyond.”
It’s no stretch to read between the lines that Republicans are the equivalent of the wrecking ball and Democrats are the equivalent of standing aside. Trumka’s words reflect a growing dissatisfaction in organized labor with some lawmakers in the Democratic Party, and to an extent, President Obama, who has promoted trade agreements and hasn’t been seen as aggressive in pushing labor’s issues.
According to the American Institute for Economic Research, “since 1990, labor unions have contributed over $667 million in election campaigns in the United States, of which $614 million or 92 percent went to support Democratic candidates. In 2008, unions spent $74.5 million in campaign contributions, with $68.3 million going to the Democratic Party.”
What has labor received in return? Well, not even a vote on the top legislative priority of unions, the Employee Free Choice Act, despite the fact that Dems controlled Congress and the presidency for two years beginning in 2009. Passage of the EFCA was expected to help lead to a resurgence in union organizing. The EFCA passed the House, but a group of “Blue Dog” Democratic senators from conservative states would not commit to passing the EFCA, even though many received labor’s support.
That lack of support for the EFCA contributed to apathy among Dems in the November 2010 elections, which helped fuel the phenomenal success of Republican candidates.
Trumka didn’t pull punches on Republican lawmakers, attacking them for seeking to limit union bargaining rights on both state and national levels, while extending tax cuts for the wealthy and conversely, slashing student aid.
“The federal budget embraced by House Republicans, for example, cuts $4.3 trillion in spending,” Trumka said, “but gives out $4.2 trillion in tax cuts that disproportionately benefit wealthy individuals and corporations.” He added: “It’s about priorities. It ought to be a shared sacrifice, and people at the bottom have already sacrificed enough.”
Trumka added: “Yet instead of having a national conversation about putting America back to work to build our future, the debate here in Washington is about how fast we can destroy the fabric of our country, about breaking the promises we made to our parents and grandparents. Understand, the (GOP Congressman) Ryan budget destroys jobs – it destroys almost all the jobs created during this recovery. It guts Medicare. It attacks Social Security, the one piece of our retirement security system that actually works. And now we see Speaker Boehner and his colleagues engaged in a new round of blackmail – with a ransom note that reads: “Cut Medicare, dismantle the government, destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs to fund more tax cuts for the rich, or we will cause the United States to default on its debts.
“Why is our national conversation in such a destructive place? Not because we are impoverished. We have never been richer. The American economy has never produced as much wealth as it does today. But we feel poor because the wealth in our society has flowed to a handful among us, and they and the politicians who pander to the worst instincts of the wealthy would rather break promises to our parents and grandparents and deny our children a future than pay their fair share of taxes.
“America’s real deficit is a moral deficit ….”
So what’s the plan going forward? One of the first priorities is in Wisconsin, where recall efforts are ongoing against six Republican state senators for adopting legislation that took away rights of public sector unions.
The next step will be holding elected leaders accountable on one question: “Are you for improving or degrading life for working families?” Trumka said. That means the fed will not only go into battleground states, Trumka told a later questioner, but also support true friends even in non-battlegrounds – and find challengers to labor’s political foes.
Doing so will mean remaking the AFL-CIO’s political apparatus into a year-round operation focused on the moral issue of helping workers, Trumka told questioners after his speech. “We hope to coordinate spending by our affiliates” – the AFL-CIO’s unions – “in much more targeted ways. We will change the way we spend money, the way we do things and the way we function. We’ll be mobilizing hopefully on a year-round basis.”
But even that may not be enough. Answering one question, Trumka called the political system “broken,” and said the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens Uniteddecision that unleashed a flood of corporate campaign cash “only made it more so. It has to be changed so that I have as much of a voice as ExxonMobil… and so that we can go back to a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
(Press Associates contributed)