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Working In These Times

Monday, Mar 1, 2010, 10:02 am

AFL-CIO Leaders Assemble This Week to Talk Jobs, Strategize

BY David Moberg

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AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks at the National Press Club in January.   (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

When the AFL-CIO executive council meets in Orlando, Florida, this week, federation officers and affiliated union presidents will be focusing on jobs, especially the politics and legislative maneuvering involved in creating and saving jobs. 

Like much that organized labor pushes for these days, especially healthcare reform, the jobs effort will walk a narrow path between supporting what Obama and the Democrats are trying to do in the face of Republican opposition–like Sen. Jim Bunning’s obstruction of extended unemployment insurance renewal on Friday—and demanding that the Democrats do more to help suffering or anxious working and middle-class citizens.

With dire election prospects looming for Democrats, unions will argue that their bread-and-butter, economic populist policies will do more to revive the economy and Democratic political prospects than concessions to the party’s nervous centrists and conservatives.

The AFL-CIO’s massive new jobs campaign will go beyond the usual lobbying and election work. “We’re taking the fight into the communities, taking the fight to companies ripping jobs out of communities, taking on the big bans and elected officials who support those banks,” says public affairs director Denise Mitchell. 

One recent example: Trumka on Friday joined a protest of a Whirlpool refrigerator factory closing and move to Mexico from Evansville, IN.

Acknowledging that “Democrats haven’t always been profiles in courage,” Mitchell says the new campaign will be designed as long-term and involving broad-based activity that goes beyond electoral work. “We have to take action independent of either political party,” she says. “We’re saying Republicans have made it very difficult by being obstructionists, but that’s not where we start.”

Richard Trumka, elected president of the AFL-CIO last fall, will be presiding over his first winter executive council meeting, typically the principal meeting of the year. Implicitly reacting to criticisms from union presidents that meetings under his predecessor John Sweeney were too scripted, Trumka has set aside blocks of time for open discussion. 

On Monday, a panel of outside experts will lead off discussion about how to work together with a broader movement to tackle labor’s problems and goals of the moment. That panel will include labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, Yale law professor–and head of the bank bailout oversight panel–Elizabeth Warren, and NAACP president Benjamin Jealous. On Wednesday Trumka has set aside three hours to discuss organizing and growth.

Since his election, Trumka has had to pinch pennies–keeping staff vacancies open and trying to staunch the financial drain of the National Labor College (partly by teaming up with Princeton Review to provide an online program that should increase revenue).

Trumka is beginning to put his own stamp on the federation despite retaining much of the old staff.  Former chief counsel Jon Hiatt became chief of staff last fall, and more recently UAW technical, office and professional division vice-president Elizabeth Bunn became organizing director, as former lead officials on organizing–Stewart Acuff and Ken Zinn–took jobs with other unions.           

With this council meeting, Trumka has an opportunity to continue building on his critically supportive view of the Democrats and begin putting more programmatic organizing behind the independent-minded words.


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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at [email protected]

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