SILVER SPRING, Md. – Five presidential candidates will appear here today and tomorrow before a gathering of leaders of almost every union in the nation.
The AFL-CIO is opening the summer meeting of its Executive Council where it hopes to lay out a strategy to unite workers across the country behind its Raising Wages Agenda and behind a broad program of progressive action.
It will be no easy task, they say, to turn things around for American workers who have been battered for decades by stagnant wages and many other attacks on their standard of living.
Labor leaders are hoping to achieve this while at the same time ensuring that the keys to the White House are not handed over in 2016 to one of the anti-labor ideologues now vying for the Republican nomination.
“It is the specifics of the Raising Wages Agenda that will drive our in-person discussions with the five presidential candidates here this week,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said yesterday.
The candidates who will make a pitch here for labor support include former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, also a Democrat and former Arkansas governor and current star of Fox News, Republican Mike Huckabee.
Huckabee, who tried to wiggle out of 16th place in the Republican field this week by making sensational and outrageous comparisons between the Iran nuclear deal and the Holocaust, has little or no serious support among labor leaders. He was endorsed only in the Republican primaries in 2008 by the International Association of Machinists, which endorsed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries that year.
Most union leaders here agree with remarks made by Leo Gerard recently regarding the GOP field of candidates. “I don’t see a Republican that’s worth talking to,” Gerard told a press conference during a Good Jobs Green Jobs meeting in Washington D.C.
Gerard is among many labor leaders here who have not yet made an official endorsement. Sanders, however, is a favorite among many Steelworkers, having received standing ovations from them at a number of rallies.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a close ally of Clinton, has announced her union’s support for the former Secretary of State. A substantial number of AFT members, however, are backing Sanders.
The AFL-CIO in North Carolina and the federation in Vermont were prepared to endorse Sanders recently but held up upon request of the AFL-CIO leadership, which wants to apply maximum pressure on all the candidates while preserving unity in the labor movement. From their point of view the policy is working.
Lawrence Michel, president of the pro-labor Economic Policy Institute noted recently, for example, that Clinton, in her speech on the economy, described the income gap and wage stagnation as the result of conscious policy decisions, not random cycles in the economy. This, he noted, has been the position of the labor movement for a long time.
For their part, the Sanders people are pleased that the AFL-CIO is not expected to endorse this week. Their view is that his candidacy will continue to gain momentum and thereby eventually win the support of a united labor movement.
Clearly the Republican candidate most detested by labor leaders here is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who proudly proclaims that “we took on the unions, and we won, we won!”
Walker continued to goad union members last week at the conference of the right wing American Legislative Exchange Council in San Diego where he boasted to the corporate lobbyists in attendance: “I understand you had a few protesters yesterday. For me that’s just getting warmed up. That’s nothing. I got 100,000 protesters.”
Union leaders here say they are determined to prevent Walker from getting away with his campaign to blame all the ills of society on organized labor. “Scott Walker is a national disgrace,” Trumka said in a short but blunt statement he issued when Walker announced last month that he was running.
It’s not all just grit and determination by labor leaders gathered here this week to do battle on the economy. There is also a definite mood of celebration and excitement.
Union leaders are encouraged by what they see as unprecedented numbers of workers joining the fight for a Raising Wages Agenda and by the fact that in one place after another across America the minimum wage is being raised despite the intransigence of Washington Republicans.
Many here are also proud that their unions are bargaining hard for new contracts for as many as five million workers this year.
“Yet real challenges remain,” warns Eric Hauser, the AFL-CIO’s communications director. “Anti-worker voices have no shortage of money. Failed trade policies loom and mass incarceration and social justice inequalities persist. And workers remain skeptical that politicians will fight for them.”
“The raising wages agenda is about more than income,” Trumka said yesterday just before the official opening of the meeting. “We also need fundamental reforms like paid time off to care for a loved one, reliable and flexible schedules, equal pay for equal work, and the right to form a union free from employer interference.”
Of the candidates slated to speak here this week, he said: “We want to know what their plan is to raise wages, what economic advisers they will listen to and what actions they will take to make our economy fairer for working families. Our Raising Wages Agenda, not any candidate’s political party, is the measuring stick we will use in 2016.”
There is also talk here among AFL-CIO staff of adding a new demand to the federation’s long-standing fight for comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
Despite directives from the Obama administration, AFL-CIO staffers note that ICE is still raiding workplaces and cooperating with unscrupulous employers to harass immigrant workers. AFL-CIO staffers working on immigration policy are even describing ICE now as a “rogue agency.” They want the labor movement to turn up its pressure on the Obama Administration to reign in ICE and halt its policies of harassment and deportation.
Photo: The mass outpouring of workers fighting for higher minimum wage laws all over the country are a source of pride for labor leaders gathered at the AFL-CIO’s summer executive council meeting. | Mike Groll/AP