ORLANDO, Fla. - As the nation's union leaders gather here for a meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council, the federation's executive vice president, Arlene Holt Baker, scoffed at media reports that unions have lower expectations now than they did when Barack Obama was elected president.
"Why should we have lower expectations?" she asked. "His election was a big victory for working families and it remains a major reason we can and will fight like hell for all the thing American workers need - starting with jobs.
Interviewed here this weekend, Holt Baker said, "There are more than 15 million unemployed in need of jobs. This is why we have a five-point jobs program to create massive numbers of public service jobs, infrastructure jobs and extensions of unemployment and COBRA benefits. We will plan this week how this fight will be taken forward and we will not lower our expectations, because the American people are not lowering their expectations. They expect jobs and they expect health care."
The labor movement is aware that the changes are nor coming "as fast as we would like" but that this is due to "the intransigence of powerful forces arrayed against us," she said. "The American people have taken these forces on before and they are doing it again and they and we will not be denied."
Asked about the difficulties in getting health care reform through the Congress and whether labor had hoped for more to be accomplished much sooner, she said, "Again, the message coming from the people is 'We will not be denied.' Majorities want health care reformed and labor has helped lead that fight. Because we didn't get it as fast as we would have liked, that is no reason to give up. We continued to fight and now you see the president fighting. I am proud that the labor movement has helped keep this going."
Turning to labor law reform and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which has been stalled in Congress by Republican senators determined to prevent its passage, Holt Baker declared, "Working people will not be denied this either. A clear majority supports unions and a majority of those without unions want to be in unions."
She noted that "we have a president who says it better than anyone else: 'Unions are not part of the problem. They are part of the solution.' And we will continue to hold him to that."
The AFL-CIO leader took issue with those who interpret the election of Scott Brown, a Republican, to the Senate in Massachusetts as another sign of labor's weakening clout at the hands of the Tea Party movement. "Nothing could be further from the truth," she said. "People voting for Scott Brown were expressing frustration about the slow pace of change. The Tea Party opposes health care reform, opposes jobs programs and opposes unions. This is not true of the majority of Scott Brown voters."
Union leaders will use the next three days here to map out a strategy for a massive jobs campaign and for their continuing fight for health care reform. They expect to carry out these battles in the context of the 2010 mid-term elections and say they will be mounting their biggest effort ever during those elections. Vice President Joe Biden is meeting with the labor leaders on Monday.
Photo: AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, with United Mine Workers leader Cecil Roberts and other UMWA activists, during the 2008 presidential campaign. http://www.flickr.com/photos/labor2008/ / CC BY 2.0