Top labor leader: The fight is about morals

WASHINGTON – AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is redefining workers’ battle with the radical right as a moral struggle, saying it involves the nation’s future. But since the moral struggle also has a political aspect, Trumka adds that the federation plans an overhaul of its political program to make it a year-round operation.

Trumka cast the conflict in states coast to coast in both political and moral terms in a major speech at Washington’s National Press Club on May 20. His text emphasized the struggle, but his answers to post-speech questions turned to politics.

The moral struggle, he said, appears in state and federal budget proposals, most of them by right-wing Republicans and also schemes – from that same source – to curtail voting rights. He called the budgets “a despicable canvas of cruelty.

“In Michigan,” he said, “a state senator thinks foster children should be required by law to purchase second-hand clothes – from the $79 annual stipend they get for clothing. In Maine, the governor thinks more children should go to work. In North Carolina, the legislature thinks we should balance the budget on the backs of autistic children.

“In Arizona, the state senate president floats the idea of locking up protesting public employees in desert tent city jails. In New York, a billionaire mayor proposes to fire 5,000 teachers rather than tax the bonuses of the Wall Street executives who brought down the American economy.”

All those proposals indicate “not just meanness, but destructiveness” and “a willful desire to block the road to the future,” Trumka stated. Though he did not say so, all the politicians and political bodies he criticized but one – New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-Independent – are Republicans or GOP-run.

In D.C., the GOP-run House’s budget cuts federal spending by $4.3 trillion over the next decade, in areas such as Pell Grants and worker training, while cutting taxes for the rich by $4.2 trillion and barely reducing the federal deficit, Trumka said. 

“Think about the message these budgets send: Sacrifice is for the weak. The powerful and well-connected get tax cuts, so they can become more powerful and more well-connected.”

Trumka portrayed the labor movement as standing against such schemes, and for the American dream “that all of us will be treated fairly, that we will look after each other, and that we will all have a share in the wealth we all help to create.

“Instead of having a national conversation about putting America back to work,” creating wealth, increasing income and revenue, and closing the federal budget deficit, “the debate here is about how fast we can destroy the fabric of our country,” he said.

In order to change that debate and to defend the moral position, labor must engage in politics, especially since last November’s election brought to power politicians whose “real passion was for eliminating the rights of working people and destroying their unions – who are standing in the way of their right-wing agenda,” Trumka declared.

The first step in the political fight for labor’s moral agenda, he said, will be in the biggest battleground so far: Wisconsin, where unionists have filed successful recall petitions against at least six members of GOP majority in the state senate. 

The GOP has a 19-14 edge there, and the 19 – with all the Democrats having decamped out of the state to try to block a quorum – passed right wing GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s bill stripping 200,000 state and local workers of collective bargaining rights. The vote was 18-1. “First, we are going to use the workers’ voice to end the Scott Walker agenda as a viable political strategy by winning the recall elections,” followed by “citizen vetoes of destructive legislation and retaking state houses.

“The next step will be holding elected leaders accountable on one question: “Are you for improving or degrading life for working families?” That means the unions will not only go into battleground states, Trumka told a later questioner, but also support true friends even in non-battlegrounds – and find challengers to labor’s political foes.

“It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside to let it” – the destruction of workers – “happen. If leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball…then working people will not support them,” he warned.

Doing so will mean remaking the AFL-CIO’s political apparatus into a year-round operation focused on the moral issue of helping workers, Trumka told questioners. “We hope to coordinate spending by our affiliates” – the AFL-CIO’s unions – “in much more targeted ways. We will change the way we spend money, the way we do things and the way we function. We’ll be mobilizing, hopefully on a year-round basis.”

But even that may not be enough. Answering one question, Trumka called the political system “broken,” and said the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that unleashed a flood of corporate campaign cash “only made it more so. It has to be changed so that I have as much of a voice as ExxonMobil…and so that we can go back to a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Photo: At a Chicago protest against cuts in LIHEAP and other necessary social service programs, March, 2. Speakers at the protest suggested some alternatives, like cutting the bloated military budget! And cut the tax cuts to the wealthiest, both corporations and individuals. Shared sacrifice! Teresa Albano/PW




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.