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Working In These Times

Friday, May 20, 2011, 11:42 am

Trumka Hits Back at Right-Wing ‘Canvas of Cruelty’

BY David Moberg

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The ongoing right-wing assaults on workers’ rights, voting rights of the most socially vulnerable citizens, and public spending for services for the needy and investments in the nation’s future are not just mean and destructive, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said today in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington. They represent moral and practical shortcomings of American politics:

All these incredible events should be understood as part of a single challenge. It is not just a political challenge—it’s a moral challenge. Because these events signal a new and dangerous phase of a concerted effort to change the very nature of America—to turn this into an “I’ve got mine” nation and replace the land of liberty and justice for all with the land of the war of all against all.

Saying that “America’s real deficit is a moral deficit,’ Trumka described the “despicable canvas of cruelty” painted by right-wing politicians:

In Michigan, a state senator thinks foster children should be required by law to purchase second-hand clothes. In Maine, the governor thinks more children should go to work. In North Carolina, the legislature thinks we should balance the state 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.

Unions are fighting back politically, he said, with recall elections for Wisconsin state senators who supported Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-labor legislation and a citizen veto campaign directed at anti-union legislation in Ohio.

Repeating his recent pledges to create “an independent labor movement that builds the power of working people—in the workplace and in political life,” he promised that unions would not support politicians who did not actively fight the attacks on working people:

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.

In a rhetorically hard-hitting speech, Trumka framed the conservative agenda as a betrayal of the idea that is America, “a promise that everyone can be full participants in national life. A promise that we the people make the rules so that hard work is rewarded with economic security and a fair share in the wealth we all help create”:

The attacks on unions and both the poor and middle class are part of a shift in the “national conversation” from creating jobs to cutting public spending and programs that help the vast majority, not because America is too poor to afford them but because the wealth in our society has flowed to a handful among us, and they and the politicians who pander to the worst instincts of the wealthy would rather break promises to our parents and grandparents and deny our children a future than pay their fair share of taxes.

Trumka’s depiction of American history as full of promise to workers (at least as a work in progress) that conservatives are now betraying may work well politically. It paints the right as essentially anti-American. Yet in the process, it somewhat rosily sketches a history that was more often quite brutal and, unfortunately, much more dominated by ideas like those of today’s right than by progressive ideas—for blacks since slavery, for virtually all workers since the rise of modern industrial corporations, despite achievements like the New Deal.

And much as his political threats are welcome, Trumka still has not been able or willing to spell out in concrete terms what labor as an independent political force would do differently.

But the speech was a useful, stirring rejoinder to the right-wing agenda and a reminder to wayward Democrats that some day, some way labor may find meaningful independence in an era where supporting Republicans is not a real alternative.

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

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