Trumka singles out fight against racism as key to raising wages

ATLANTA – The AFL-CIO’s Executive Council, at its meeting here today, established a special labor commission on race and social justice that will travel across the nation and engage unions and their members in a broad conversation about the need to put an end to racism.

“Racism and dog whistle politics are being used to keep us all divided, and that division holds back our ability to win wage increases and improve our standard of living,” Richard Trumka, the federation’s president, declared here today.

The announcement of the formation of the commission on race and social justice came during a press conference at which Trumka said that it will be labor’s goal to insert the federation’s raising wages agenda into the 2016 elections.

Members of the executive council, which consists of the federation’s three top officers along with 55 vice presidents representing different unions, are in an upbeat mood here despite the fact that their unions continue to battle Republican attacks on organizing rights in many states.

Trumka explained why: “Just look at what a difference a day makes,” he said. “In one 24-hour period last week Walmart workers won a raise, the communications and electrical workers striking at Fairpoint settled on a contract and the Steelworkers, in the first major strike at oil refineries since the 80s, focused the attention of the nation on how oil refineries endanger both their workers and the communities in which they are located.

He said that the victories of last week underline why “collective bargaining is the best tool for raising wages.”

Unions are uniquely positioned this year, Trumka said, to raise wages for millions of workers who have not had raises in years.

“More than five million workers have contracts that are up this year – grocery workers, auto workers, steel workers, actors – and we are negotiating more contracts this year than ever. Collective action is the name of the game,” Trumka reiterated.

The federation announced here also today that it will be holding special raising- wages summits in four primary election states this year – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. “We’re putting everyone on notice,” Trumka said, “that raising wages is the yardstick. What candidates and policies result in raising wages – we support. Whichever ones don’t – we oppose.”

Elaborating on the federation’s approach to fighting racism, Trumka said the executive council is hearing a special message today from Ian Haney Lopez, author of Dog Whistle Politics.

“Politicians are using coded racial language to divide us,” Trumka said, singling out recent remarks by now-Fox news commentator Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York. “When he spoke about the president,” Trumka said, he put out the idea that “he (the president)” is “not like us, he doesn’t get it, he gets more excited about Ferguson than he does about terror attacks on the U.S. This is coded language, Trumka explained, that is designed to split white workers and African American workers. “We have to recognize it for what it is and fight it,” he said.

Trumka said the raising-wages campaign that the federation launched in the nation’s capital in January is politically smart, in addition to being the “right thing to do. It is a unifying progressive theme that everyone, despite other differences, can agree upon.”

As for the economic necessity of raising wages he explained: “We have an economy that is 72 percent driven by consumer spending.  It’s an economy that can’t grow unless people have more money to spend.”

Photo: Collective action by Walmart workers was a key to their winning a wage increase last week, Trumka said. The AFL-CIO, he also announced, is setting up a commission on race and social justice to fight attempts to divide workers along racial lines.  |  Charles Rex Arbogast/AP


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.