Wisconsin union battle ‘helped define’ Democrats, Trumka says

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Monday that standoff between public sector unions and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has highlighted the contrasts between the two political parties heading into the 2012 election.

"By and large, I think this helped define the Democratic Party,” Trumka told reporters, adding Democratic lawmakers are now more likely to say that they support unions’ collective bargaining rights than before. “They now say that regularly. Before, it was not as clear-cut.”

He said the skirmish has also put Republicans firmly among the opponents of the labor movement.

“It also helped define the Republicans who say, 'We hate collective bargaining and we will do everything we can to destroy it and working people,'” Trumka said.

Trumka’s comments came on the same day that labor groups, partnering with civil rights and environmental activists, held rallies across the country for union rights on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. King was killed in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968 while leading protests for collective bargaining rights for sanitation workers.

With the MLK events, unions were trying to capitalize on what they say was an outpouring of support for workers' rights in Wisconsin. That energy is being funneled into recall and referendum efforts in Wisconsin and Ohio over union legislation.

Trumka said the rejuvenation of the labor movement should bolster President Obama’s reelection campaign, which officially began Monday. The union leader said labor had problems motivating their members during the 2010 elections, but he predicted that wouldn’t be the case in 2012.

“Will we able to motivate them this time? Thank Scott Walker. Thank [Republican Ohio Gov. John] Kasich. Thank a couple more for giving us a clean-cut edge,” Trumka said. “They support workers and collective bargaining; they don’t.”

While much attention has paid to battles over labor rights in Wisconsin and Ohio, other efforts to curb union influence have popped up in other states. Trumka said this is a coordinated strategy to not just curtail labor but other progressive groups. He cited examples of voter identification bills being introduced in several statehouses and other measures that could limit voting by young people and immigrants.

“When you look at from 30,000 feet down, it is definitely a well-put together strategy by the Republicans to kill or to sap the strength of all progressive groups,” Trumka said. “This is just isn’t against labor.”

Asked if President Obama could have done more to fight back against Walker’s anti-collective bargaining rights bill, Trumka said the White House provided the appropriate response.

“All of us could have done more. Every last one of us could have done more both before, during and now. So yeah, he could have done more, but I think he made the appropriate things,” Trumka said. “One, he said publicly that he supports workers and the right to collectively bargain. Two, he faced up those governors.” 

The labor leader said it was important that workers know that the president supports collective bargaining rights.

“I think he said that,” he said.

Trumka also said he would bet on Obama winning the White House again.

“If I was wagering on the next election, I would rather be in Obama’s shoes than anyone else’s,” Trumka said.