AFL-CIO's Trumka looks to ‘independent’ labor movement

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Friday that workers want an “independent” labor movement designed to help the working class, not a specific party or candidate.

In a speech at the National Press Club, the head of the nation’s largest labor federation said that unions intend to focus their 2012 political efforts not based on lawmakers’ party affiliation but according to his or her stance on issues near and dear to labor. 

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“We are looking hard at how we work in the nation’s political arena. We have listened hard, and what workers want is an independent labor movement that builds power of working people — in the workplace and in political life,” Trumka said. “Our role is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate. It’s to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our economy, our country.”

Trumka's speech was a warning to Democrats, the traditional allies of labor. The AFL-CIO president said candidates need to advance workers’ interests to earn labor’s backing come campaign season. 

“It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside — the outcome is the same either way. If leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working families’ interests, then working people will not support them. This is where our focus will be — now, in 2012 and beyond,” Trumka said.  

The labor movement has been galvanized this year by battles in state capitals, epitomized by the conflict over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) effort to curtail public workers’ collective bargaining rights. Despite having a motivated labor force, union leaders face a GOP-controlled House and newly elected Republican governors and state legislators across the country who want to cut back on labor’s power. 

The national debate has become dominated by deficit politics over how much to cut government spending, met with protests from labor as they see funding for needed programs slashed by lawmakers. Trumka argued that the country’s deficit is not fiscal, but moral, and that more needs to be done to help workers. 

“America’s real deficit is a moral deficit — where political choices come down to forcing foster children to wear hand-me-downs while cutting taxes for profitable corporations. Powerful political forces are seeking to silence working people — to drive us out of the national conversation,” Trumka said.   

Despite the warning to Democrats, Trumka was more explicit in his criticism of Republicans. He said that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget proposal “destroys jobs” and that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is committing “blackmail” by trying to negotiate cuts to Medicare and tax breaks to raise the debt ceiling.   

In a question-and-answer session after his speech, the labor leader elaborated on how unions plan to change their political operations for the 2012 election cycle. 

“We are actually redoing our entire political program and the way we do things,” Trumka said. “We will change the way we spend ... the way we function in a way that creates power for workers.”

The AFL-CIO, which spends most of its funds on member education and get-out-the-vote efforts, wants to better coordinate with their affiliated unions that tend to make direct campaign contributions to candidates. In addition, the labor federation wants to mobilize its members year-round to campaign on issues dear to labor, instead of dismantling its political program after every election, which makes it harder to motivate workers when the next election comes around in two years, Trumka said.

Asked if labor will campaign against Democrats, Trumka responded, “Ask Blanche Lincoln.”

Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat, was the Arkansas senator who survived a primary challenge from a labor-backed candidate but then went onto lose in the general election last year.

“What we are saying is for people who supports workers, we’re going to be with them. And candidates who don’t support workers, we’re not going to be with them,” Trumka said. “The difference is we are not going to spend precious resources helping candidates that don’t stand up and help us.”

Labor has not always been happy with Democrats in Washington, especially the White House. President Obama has been aggressively pushing trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea as well as signing off on compromises that have kept tax cuts for the wealthy in place and has slashed funding for key government programs.

Trumka said Obama has made mistakes, calling it “a strategic blunder” to push for the Colombia trade deal since he said it would reward a country that has a record of violence against trade unionists.

Trumka said he thinks Obama has done “a good job” but that the size of his economic plan to rebuild the country is not enough.

“I think the scale hasn’t been there but we will work on it,” Trumka said.

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