Before big union crowd, parade of pols trashes Trump
Left to right: Cory Booker, Tim Kaine, and Bernie Sanders | AP

WASHINGTON—Never let it be said that supposedly progressive congressional Democrats – especially U.S. senators placed on lists of hopefuls for the Oval Office – miss a chance before big union crowds to trash Donald Trump.

Such was the case as politicians paraded before the 1,000 American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) delegates in three days at the union’s annual legislative-political conference.

Inside and outside, from a large meeting room to a windswept chilly rally north of the Capitol building, the solons missed few chances to trash the current Republican incumbent and occasionally his minions and enablers, Congress’ ruling Republicans.

And they got rousing and frequent ovations from the crowds, occasionally prompted into chants of their names, led by union President J. David Cox in his distinctive North Carolinian drawl.

Leading the charge, and you could infer from their rhetoric they were thinking more about the White House than they were willing to let on, were Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Cory Booker of New Jersey and – to a lesser degree – Bernie Sanders of Vermont. All three were on a recent list of 30 Dem hopefuls, of varying degrees, leading up to the 2020 race for the White House.

All the speakers spent a lot of their time on AFGE’s issues, denouncing Trump’s proposed pay freeze for federal workers, his call to virtually institute a spoils system in hiring and firing and praising the role of unions in creating, sustaining and defending the middle class, among other things. The difference was those three spoke more generally.

Kaine, the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2016, led off the parade at the conference’s first working session on Feb. 12 by lambasting Trump’s knowledge, or lack of it, of the U.S. constitution.

“You take an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and so do I,” the normally low-key Kaine declared. “I don’t want to give a power-hungry president an easier hand to sack people for doing your jobs, just because we insist on holding him accountable.”

And unionists are right to doubt Trump, Kaine said. “He’s worried people’s loyalty may be to the Constitution, not to him=,” the senator explained.

Booker, shouting through the occasional wind at a Feb. 14 Capitol Hill rally, was even more expansive and more general.

Evoking the power of love of country and opposition to hate symbolized by the civil rights movement, the up-and-coming New Jersey senator praised the U.S. people in general – and unionists in particular – for the “power of love” that movement showed, and for courage in “storming the beaches of Normandy to fight the Nazis and in refusing to move to the back of the bus” in Birmingham, Ala., the 1956 start of the modern civil rights crusade.

“Hatred comes in many forms,” Booker declared. They include “bigotry and homophobia, but also in attacking the basic dignity of men and women who work at full-time jobs but who still earn (pay) below the poverty line.”

“And we see voting rights, civil rights, women’s rights and labor’s rights being attacked every day” by Trump and the GOP, Booker said, though he did not mention the president’s name. “That is unacceptable in a nation dedicated to liberty and justice for all.”

“This is calling out for us, as agents of love,” to end that poverty and discrimination, Booker declared. “And we know we have work to do…You cannot love your country unless you love your country men and women.”

Sanders fell in between. He joined AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka as headliners at the union’s Feb. 13 rally in front of the federation’s building before its march on Veterans Affairs Department headquarters a block away.

And Sanders didn’t miss a chance to again sound key themes – demanding to reduce income inequality and enact single-payer government-run health care – which he pounded home on the campaign trail during his 2016 Democratic presidential nomination run.

“You are negotiating today on behalf of 300 million Americans who understand this country is about providing quality health care to veterans, the elderly, the poor and the sick,” the Vermonter declared. “Our job is not to allow Trump and his friends to privatize the VA. Our job is to strengthen the VA.”

Other speakers discussed issues ranging from AFGE’s specific causes to Trump’s proposed budget blueprint, released on Feb. 12, to, inevitably, this November’s election. That’s becoming an increasing target for union leaders and activists, such as the AFGE delegates, if not for all of the rank-and-file.

Indeed, energizing those others was a key point of Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., at the Capitol Hill rally. The GOP has 51 U.S. Senate seats, but must defend only eight this fall. The Democrats hold 47, but must defend 26, while Sanders and the other pro-Democratic independent, Maine’s Angus King, also face the voters.

He told the group to “go home” and talk to their colleagues, getting them more involved in politics, and earlier than ever, like right now. The election is almost 10 months away.

“People in Washington like to kick you around,” Schumer told the crowd. “They like scapegoats. Sometimes it’s people of color. Sometimes it’s women. Sometimes it’s immigrants. And sometimes it’s you.”

“So don’t let the naysayers get you down. The people know what Donald Trump is and what he is doing to America. They are in the streets. They are marching. They are voting. Keep up the fight. We have your back, and on to victory!” he declared.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.