AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka wants an independent labor movement

In the past, Democratic politicians could always count on union campaign contributions. But, when it comes to supporting working families, corporate Democrats have not delivered, or at least not to the extent that they need to in these difficult times. By spending the last three years trying to compromise with the anti-labor GOP, they have moved the party more to the right. As a result, unions are reconsidering how to best spend their money

AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka, who vigorously confronted racism among white union members during the last presidential campaign and turned out the vote for then candidate Barack Obama, is considering withholding union campaign funds for 2012. According to Trumka, Democrats are getting too reliant on corporate money and less helpful to working and middle class Americans. He points out that Republicans get 79 percent of campaign contributions from business, but Democrats are not far behind with 72 percent. Unhappy with the pro-business leanings of the Democratic Party, he is hoping to use union funds that would have gone to politicians to build and strengthen worker movements at the grassroots level. A recent article by Joan Walsh at Salon explores Trumka’s growing rift with Democrats:

[In 2010] Trumka’s AFL-CIO famously bucked the White House, supporting Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s unsuccessful primary challenge to Blue Dog Sen. Blanche Lincoln. [Lincoln lost in the general election.] When Halter lost, anonymous White House officials attacked labor leaders as “absolute idiots” who had been “humiliated” after flushing $10 million “down the toilet.” In an interview last week Trumka seemed unchastened by attacks over the Halter bid, and he pledged the AFL-CIO to a new independence from Democratic Party organizations and candidates. He didn’t spell out exactly what that might mean, citing decisions to be made by the federation’s governing Executive Council. “You’ll see us giving less to party structure, and more to our own structure,” Trumka promised.”

Trumka has been unhappy with how the Obama White House discouraged independent progressive campaigns on behalf of healthcare reform and against anti-union Blue Dog Democrats, and recently with how the White House discouraged direct DNC/OFA support for Wisconsin public sector workers who demonstrated against GOP Governor Walker’s attempts to gut public sector unions. However, Trumka did praise statements Obama made during the union demonstrations in Wisconsin, saying they were “very, very helpful.

“First, he called what was going on in Wisconsin the attack on working people,” Trumka said on MSNBC. “And then he met with the Republican governors and he said: ‘You’re wrong for villainizing public workers. They’re our neighbors, they’re our friends, they’re our nurses, they’re doctors, they’re teachers. They’re all of our friends – you shouldn’t do that.’ ”

Trumka, the only labor representative on Obama’s jobs council, added that “this really isn’t about Obama.”

“This is about those governors that are making war on their employees and trying to deny them a middle-class lifestyle,” he said. “Hopefully, there will be more and more support from politicians, including the president.”

But while Trumka has praised Obama for his pro-union statements, he has also been critical of his lack of substantive action for job creation and relief for working families. According to the Huffington Post:

The labor ommunity — the AFL-CIO especially — has been taking steps towards greater independence from the Democratic Party as its disappointments with the Obama administration and congressional Democrats have mounted. The typical response from party insiders has been dismissive assumptions that labor has nowhere else to go.

But, unions, having been reinvigorated by the grassroots uprisings at Madison and in other states, are no longer willing to be taken for granted. When Joan Walsh asked if Wisconsin surprised him, Trumka said:

You know, you knew it was coming. It was more like: When? What’s going to be the final pinpoint that makes it happen? . . . It was truly a spontaneous grassroots rank and file movement, and it’s still growing. Now it’s up to us to convert it from a moment to a movement.

On May 20, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.,  Richard Trumka spoke about a new direction for the AFL-CIO:

We have listened hard, and what workers want is an independent labor movement that builds the power of working people—in the workplace and in political life. Working people want a labor movement strong enough to help return balance to our economy, fairness to our tax system, security to our families, and moral and economic standing to our nation. Our role is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate. It is to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our country.

It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside—the outcome is the same either way. If leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball, and advancing working families’ interests, working people will not support them. This is where our focus will be—now, in 2012 and beyond.

We will uphold the dignity of work and restore respect for working people. In this season’s political battles, teachers, nurses and firefighters have been vilified. Decent jobs with economic security have been cast as more than America’s workers deserve. Low-wage, part-time, temporary, no-benefit work is being sold as the “new normal” for our economy. We know that only a dynamic, effective movement of working people working together can reclaim the value of work. Our unions must reach out to every working person in America—to those whose jobs have been outsourced and down-sized, to carwash workers in Los Angeles, to domestic workers who have few legal rights, to freelancers and young people who have “gigs” rather than jobs. And together with the AFL-CIO’s construction and manufacturing workers, pilots and painters, plumbers and public employees, bakers and others, we will be heard.

The stakes are so high, for working families, for America. Will we be a country ruled by greed, by people who would cut or take pensions away from first responders, people who would take away the fundamental human rights of our workers, who would choose tax breaks for the richest among us over a future for all of us? Or will we be a country where we choose the future, where we look out for each other, where all of us have a voice?

We’ll only win investments in our future if we again embrace the idea that we are one national community. That our very identity is bound up with the promise that all of us have a voice—in the workplace, at the ballot box—and that we are responsible in a deep sense for each other. The fabric of our government, our democratic republic, is about making that responsibility for each other real.

The moral character of America is worth fighting for, and that is exactly what working people are going to do in the days and months to come.