Gearing Up for Elections, AFL-CIO President Trumka Calls For ‘Economic Patriotism’

David Moberg

With Labor Day plans that include Barack Obama at a Milwaukee rally and a half million worth of TV ads (see above), the AFL-CIO is ratcheting up its work on what the labor federation’s president Rich Trumka calls a defining set of elections” this fall.

Trumka wants to make economic patriotism” the key issue of those elections, where Democrats – more friendly to unions than Republicans, whatever their many faults – are expected to lose many seats in Congress. 

Trumka contrasts a warm, fuzzy and non-militant vision of unions , associated with a harmonious America where everyone works together, with rapacious corporate America, abetted by right-wing politicians, that ships jobs overseas, attacks workers’ rights and wages, and weakens social security, while working to cut taxes for the rich.

By delivering a strong message that both addresses voters’ major issue – jobs – and competes with the right’s phony patriotism and populism, Democrats could gain ground with many independents and fire up enthusiasm among much of their disillusioned base with a message like the one Trumka outlined in a press conference today:

Patriotism has traditionally been defined by foreign affairs. But patriotism should begin in our own backyard, in our own communities.

In this election, working people are looking for economic heroes, champions who will put themselves on the line to create a better future for our children.

We’re looking for leaders who will call out corporations that ship our good jobs overseas, leaders who will reject unfair trade deals, leaders who will fight for a middle class economy and put us on a path to make things in America again.

This election is about economic patriots, and it’s also about corporate traitors.

Over the last three decades, corporations have made strategic decisions to choose short-term profits over people. They have hollowed out America.

Things will continue to get worse if we let them. …

Forced into playing defense in these elections, unions are cooperating more closely in an effort likely to cost significantly more than any previous off-year election. Several unions that had split in 2005 to form Change To Win are more closely integrated into the AFL-CIO action plan this year: UNITE HERE, to be followed soon by the Laborers, has rejoined the AFL-CIO, and both SEIU (Service Employees) and UFCW (Food and Commercial Workers) have merged political work with the AFL-CIO.

Unions have not all divulged how much they’re spending – Trumka has only said the AFL-CIO will spend more than the $44 million four years ago; AFSCME (public employees) president Gerald McEntee pledged $50 million; and SEIU has budgeted $44 million.

Much of that money will go to the labor movement’s usual intensive campaign – mail, phone, and personal contacts in the workplace and at home – to register, educate, and get members and their families to the polls. Trumka said union staff and member volunteers will reach 17 million working class voters in 26 states on 70 House races and a total of 400 elections, including state offices.

The main difference this year is that unions are fighting mainly to hold on to endangered sympathetic legislators, not expand their influence. We’re looking at where we have the most active labor movements and the density to be able to influence the outcomes of races,” AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman.

Jobs are the number one issue for unions and working people. Middle-class, working-class people are feeling in general uneasy and angry about deindustrialization, jobs leaving, outsourcing, not enough jobs being created,” Ackerman says. Jobs and the economy is what it’s all about.” Trumka says labor will turn votes this fall on reauthorization of transit funding, the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and other legislation into political markers of which politicians are for and which against job creation.

Pursuing the same jobs agenda, Working America, the AFL-CIO’s 3 million-member community affiliate, reaches non-union working class households at home as well as through e-mail and other means. As a reflection of AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Elizabeth Shuler’s outreach to younger workers, labor will target messages to them and more extensively use social media, like Facebook.

Some of the usual Labor Day events – picnics, parades and rallies – will take on a clear political edge, from the Milwaukee rally with Obama to a fair trade caravan through Ohio. And later, on Oct. 2, several unions and the AFL-CIO will be among 150 sponsors of the One Nation Working Together march for jobs, education and equality in Washington, as well as sponsoring parallel activities around the country.

Trumka’s economic patriotism may jar sensitivities of those who want to promote global solidarity, but the two need not be inconsistent. Now the U.S. is losing not only many low- to medium-skilled jobs, but high-skilled as well.

And politically, the idea may appeal to many conservatives and a few capitalists, like former Intel CEO Andy Grove, who in July lamented at how the U.S. was now creating tech jobs mainly in China, not the U.S., and how the trend endangered future industries. The solution, he argued, involves a stronger role for government and rebuild[ing] our industrial commons.”

Labor Day marks the point where unions accelerate an earlier-than-usual start on what Ackerman calls a really hard election cycle” compounded by disappointment with current conditions among many union members. Trumka’s call for economic patriotism may give that drive a bit of the kick it needs for a tough couple months ahead.

David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. 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 received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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