Watch out, Democrats, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said on Friday. Your buddies in organized labor are looking to expand the friendship circle.
Trumka’s speech at the National Press Club, billed as a major address by the union, recast the union’s connection to politics as a year-round, national affair — rather than the election-focused, battleground state strategy of the past. Trumka warned Democrats that labor would not always be at their side, suggesting more of the primary battles like the unsuccessful one that labor backed against former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) last year.
Trumka’s main message to politicians, after a year in which labor has battled broad-based attacks in state legislatures across the country, was a simple one: you’re either with us or you’re against us.
“It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside—the outcome is the same either way,” he said in prepared remarks that he veered little from during the address. “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,” he said. “Now, in 2012 and beyond.”
Exactly how that differs from how labor usually does things is a bit unclear. While it’s true that Republicans in Ohio and other states have emerged as union allies in the fight against bills that scrap collective bargaining for state workers, when it came to GOP, Trumka’s speech was far more negative than it was positive.
Republicans across the country are “refusing to allow high-speed rail lines to be built in their states,” costing the unemployed potential jobs, Trumka said. He bemoaned their “plans to defund higher education, close schools and fire teachers.”
It all adds up to a culture of “not just meanness,” but “destructiveness.” He said Republicans in the states have shown “a willful desire to block the road to the future.”
Trumka tore into Washington Republicans, too, attacking the House budget as mean-spirited and focused on putting the burden of balancing the nation’s books on the backs of the poor and working classes. He promised that labor would hold politicians accountable for their support of the House GOP’s plan to eliminate Medicare and replace it with a government voucher system, and pledged to “fight against any proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare, regardless of who proposes it.”
Still, Trumka insisted that labor has a new focus in the next election cycle, one that could cost Democrats who don’t vote the way labor likes. He said that the AFL-CIO’s political operation, which normally runs in the months around elections and then spools down once they’re over, will now run 365 days a year, pushing both sides to take labor positions on key issues.
“In the past, we’ve dismantled our process after the election,” Trumka said. “And then we would re-energize it when issues came up. We intend now to keep that process in effect and when friends or foe get a little weary and forgetful about who they should be representing, we’ll remind them with an educated and mobilized rank and file.”
Despite the promise of independence, Trumka didn’t offer much in the way of criticisms against Democrats. His speech mentioned Cuomo’s plan to let the state’s “millionaires tax” expire, which labor opposes.
When it came to President Obama, Trumka criticized the president’s support for free trade agreements and what he called his “strategic blunder” in letting talk of deficits override defense of what Trumka said was necessary stimulus spending. Overall, though, Trumka spoke favorably of the man who’ll more likely than not be counting on labor’s support in the 2012 presidential election.
“For direction, I think an ‘A’,” Trumka said when asked to give Obama a letter grade. “For execution? Well, he doesn’t make the honor roll.”
After the speech, TPM asked Trumka to name other Democrats beyond Cuomo who should be wary of labor’s new, more independent direction. He declined.
“I’m not going to single a couple of people out,” he said. “What I’m going to say is this: we’re going to take a real look at who stands up for workers and who doesn’t. We’re going to try to use our resources more effectively and more focused and more concentrated on those people who stand up for us.”
“Those that stand up for us occasionally will be in a different orbit,” he said.