ORLANDO, Fla. (PAI) - The AFL-CIO will integrate its political drive with its pro-jobs campaign this year, holding politicians accountable and refusing to support those who don't actually do something to help suffering workers, top leaders say.
Speaking to reporters on March 2 during the federation's executive council meeting here, federation political committee chair Gerry McEntee - the AFSCME president, political director Karen Ackerman and Working America director Karen Nussbaum said the integration has already started.
That start was highlighted at a town hall meeting on March 1 in Orlando featuring suffering workers, and a decision the next day to back the fed's Arkansas affiliate, which is supporting Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, the primary challenger to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.
"We helped elect Lincoln and she hasn't basically voted for any legislation for the labor movement," McEntee elaborated. There are 45,000 unionists in Arkansas.
"She's been against the Employee Free Choice Act and she's been against the public option" in health care reform, among other issues, McEntee said. "We'll send a message to other politicians ... When people are as recalcitrant as this on workers' issues, you have to do something."
The integrated campaign includes a "week of action" starting March 15 and continuous education aimed at unionists and their families, plus non-union workers. It will concentrate more on issues and on holding politicians accountable not just for kind words but for real actions, the three said. That's the point of the Halter endorsement.
Neither McEntee nor Ackerman provided estimates on how much the federation would spend nor how many people it would put in the field in this year's election cycle. The AFL-CIO's election spending in 2007-08 - not counting sums spent by individual unions - totaled $53 million, and it marshaled 200,000 activists. Ackerman said an informal survey of unions produced a spending figure of approximately $200 million then.
"We'll spend what it takes in the political campaign and spend what it takes in the jobs campaign," Ackerman promised.
The federation's decision, to be implemented over the next few months - McEntee's committee will meet in D.C. the week of March 8 to start hashing out details - comes as workers and their allies face what all three admit will be a "difficult" political landscape this fall.
Conditions are so bad that another labor official, Sheet Metal Workers legislative representative Vincent Panvini, predicts Democrats will lose the House and the Senate.
But Ackerman and Nussbaum laid down some guideposts about where and how labor would spend its political money. Ackerman named "a firewall" of six states - New York, California, Illinois, Ohio, Nevada and Pennsylvania - with key races for the Senate and House to keep a pro-worker majority on Capitol Hill.
All those states also have gubernatorial seats and state legislative races, she added. Those contests are important to workers because the states will redraw both state and federal district lines in 2011-2012, affecting who will or won't represent workers in Congress and in state legislatures. But she could not break down planned spending percentages on congressional, gubernatorial or state legislative contests.
Nussbaum, whose organization now numbers 3 million workers who agree with organized labor on the issues but who for various reasons can't join unions, had her own list of states Working America will mobilize in: Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Pennsylvania. "And there might be 10 more," she added.
In all of those states, and nationwide, "people are at the tipping point" about jobs and the economy, Nussbaum said. "They're not angry at (President) Obama, but at the government for failing to deliver" when they're in need. "It's our job to talk about alternatives when they don't see immediate improvements in their lives."
Talking about alternatives returns the discussion to the other half of the federation's integrated drive: the jobs campaign, begun by the town hall meeting at the Painters hall in Orlando.
Hundreds of other such meetings will occur in coming weeks, AFL-CIO staffers said later. The schedule is still being constructed.
"This is the kickoff of a national conversation," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told the standing-room-only crowd in the Painters hall, which overflowed outside.
"It's about jobs, it's about health care, it's about lost wages, it's about retirement security and it's about fears that the values you heard tonight" - the value of hard work at good wages to provide decent family lives - "are not the values that have driven this country" in recent years. "When there are systemic problems, it's time to change the system," he added. "But we can do that only as a community."