Richard Trumka’s Declaration of Independence

The AFL-CIO president says the labor federation is building a progressive movement beyond any party or candidate.

David Moberg

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addresses the National Press Club on May 20, 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Unions in the AFL-CIO will be making plans for this tough election year as the labor federation’s executive council meets in Orlando, Fla., this week, when it is expected to endorse President Obama for re-election. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka discussed some of the political challenges facing unions in a late January interview with In These Times. Here is an edited version:

David Moberg: You’ve made a number of comments about trying to increase labor’s independence in political action. In the past that has often meant endorsing Republicans, or for some people, it’s meant having a separate labor party or something like that. Could you elaborate on what you mean by labor independence?

First of all, it’s about building our structure as well; about getting working people to mobilize, whether they are union members or not; and talking about the differences that are out there. It’s about supporting people that are friends. It’s about having year-round mobilization that can transition quickly from electoral politics to advocacy to accountability; and supporting people that are friends. And those that are real friends will get more attention from us and those that are marginal friends will get less attention, and those obviously that are not friends will get the opposite kind of attention. 

But it’s not about the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. It’s about workers having an independent voice in a system, quite frankly, where right now, people can drop in five or six million bucks at the drop of a hat to alter a presidential race. It’s about us having an independent voice and talking to workers, union and nonunion workers. 

What are the ways in which you think you are going to develop more of that independent voice this year? Is your Super PAC proposal part of that?

Yes, it allows us to talk to nonunion workers, whereas before we were restricted from doing that. Now we use that Super PAC to talk to non-union workers. Also, we will be doing that year-round so it’s not just during the election cycle. It’s during and after the election cycle. 

I’ve heard that there is some reluctance to pledge contributions to the Super PAC, and that it’s a little slow getting off the ground.

Any time you’re building something from the ground level up, [that happens]. We are over $4 million dollars. So we are on our way. Hopefully we will have enough to be able to communicate with workers where we think it will make a difference. 

When you talk about the gradations of support, it seems like there are fewer and fewer Republicans that can even get the marginal support.

It’s difficult to find Republicans. There are some out there, and we will support them.

Do you foresee any challenges to Democrats who aren’t so friendly, like the challenge to Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010?

I don’t have any plans right now. But the answer is yes, you will see those, including having people that are very friendly to working people running in primaries and in general elections. We had a pilot program in New Jersey where we got our people to run for political office. We had over 530 run for public office, at all levels – local, county and state. We worked at getting them elected. 

Is that something you plan to expand?

Yes. We are looking at additional states now. That decision hasn’t been made. 

When you talk about gradations of support, does that mean Democrats who are particularly friendly to labor simply get more money or that you might not endorse Democrats who are not supportive?

It’s the level of participation that we pledge, being able to get people out and mobilizing, the phone banks that we do, the door knocks that we do, the counties that we can cover, the precincts we can cover, coming together with community groups in those areas. 

How do you think that this refines or differs from what you have been doing in the past? In many ways it sounds like what you and former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney started doing over 15 years ago.

We are going to be focusing on building our structure and the structure of progressive partners in the field as opposed to building the structure for any candidate or any party. 

Some people in the labor movement are talking, partly inspired by Occupy Wall Street, of the need to build a broad progressive movement. They contrast that with building structures for labor itself; seeing the a coalition movement as being as important as electoral work. How would you balance electoral versus movement-building politics?

I think that’s a false choice because if you are staying in place full-time, you are doing electoral stuff, but also building those partnerships that can allow you to transition from electoral politics to advocacy and from advocacy to accountability. And I am very enthusiastic about building those partnerships, and I’m not just talking about one-way partnerships, I’m talking about consistent partnership with progressive groups so that we can support each other. 

Will the labor movement develop a message independently of the candidates, including Obama?

Yes, our fidelity is to the working people of this country, and our message will be about jobs for them, job security, about a better way of life for the 99 percent. It’s about having an independent voice and articulating the wants and needs of working families out there, whether any candidate agrees with it or not. And obviously the more they agree with it and the more they articulate it the easier it will be to mobilize for them. 

It always seems there is a temptation to get in line with what the candidate himself or herself is saying.

I think you are right, there is that temptation, and hopefully we will be able to not take the temptation, but that we will be able to stay with our independent voice for working families and talking about what they need and that is jobs. 

Thinking about the presidential race for a moment, it seems there are various degrees of enthusiasm for Obama, both in leadership and the ranks in the labor movement. Some people are enthusiastic, some very cool, some pragmatically saying, Well, whatever limitations there are, it’s sure better than the lineup of the Republicans.” How do you see generating the kind of enthusiasm that is going to be needed and, in particular, to overcome what appears to be a disillusionment and coolness among working-class voters?

First, let me start off by saying this: Sometimes we have disagreed with the president on strategy, but I know one thing, he’s a friend of the 99 percent. That is what I know for sure. And when you look at what the Republicans have been saying, if you follow their debate, one of these guys is going to be the candidate on the other side, and each and every one of them acted like the recession and the upheaval in the economy never occurred. They are advocating the identical policies Bush put in place that caused the recession in the first place. When you stack up what they stand for against President Obama, I think it’s hands down that he is closer to working people than all of them combined. And that is what we look at here. 

Look at the things he has done. Look at where he has been, fighting for the American Jobs Act, extending unemployment insurance, recess appointments to the NLRB to keep it going. He has been fighting hard for working people, and we applaud that. I think getting that out will be the difference, showing the difference between the candidates. I read all of Mitt Romney’s economic platform, and it boils down to two things: Don’t tax rich people, and take away all regulations, and that will create jobs. When you get down to it, that’s all it says. 

Sounds like a good summary of Newt Gingrich’s proposals.

As well, with a tad of racism sprinkled on top. 

By the way, you tackled that issue of racism last presidential race head on. How do you see dealing with the coded messages of the Republicans like Gingrich’s about the food stamp president”?

I’ll call them for what they are. If I think they’re code, I’ll call them on it. And if a Democrat was doing it, I’d call them on it too. There is no place for it in the year of 2012, and each of us has a special obligation to stand up anytime we see it and to call it for what it is. If we get the sunlight on it, I think it goes away. I think that is what happened in the last election. I said two things in the last election: If you’re not voting for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman, you’re wrong, and if you’re not voting for Barack Obama because he’s black, you’re wrong. 

Do you think the message from Gingrich, and perhaps that from any of the other candidates, is racist, or would you not go that far?

Here’s what it is: They are trying to talk to their base. Their base is far, far right, and when you start talking about the food stamp President,” that tiptoes pretty close to the line as far I’m concerned. You wouldn’t say that about a white person. If that had been a white president, he would not have said that about him. He hasn’t even said that about Mitt Romney or anything near that when he was back in Massachusetts. I’m not saying he is there yet but he is awful close to the line. 

'Sometimes we have disagreed with the president on strategy, but I know one thing, he's a friend of the 99 percent.'

There are two lines of argument. One is how bad the Republicans are, and I suspect you can make a pretty strong case for that. But it still seems like there is a lot of this residual disappoint with Obama not fighting hard enough on certain progressive issues or there are some unions that are upset with his trade deals, the Keystone pipeline, and the location of the convention in North Carolina. Other than pointing out the evils of the Republican candidates, do you really think you can generate enthusiasm for Obama as a candidate?

I do. Look, when George Bush came into the office he had a giant surplus and the economy was humming along. When he left there were fewer jobs than when he came into office. This president came into office with the economy about to fall off the cliff, with a group in Congress that was determined to see him fail, and he has created more jobs than President Bush had during good times. He has worked hard, and it hasn’t been easy because the odds have been stacked against him. He has done a lot of good things that don’t get recognized. And, yeah, has he done things we don’t agree with? Absolutely. And would we like to see him fight harder for certain things? Absolutely. But whenever you take the whole scorecard, I think he gets fairly high marks for the things he has done and for the things he is trying to do.

Do you expect all the unions in the AFL-CIO to endorse him for re-election?

We’ll see what happens. It will be the vast majority, if not all.

Do you have any projections for how much the AFL-CIO itself is going to use on politics this year?

No, I don’t, because our board hasn’t adopted that budget yet.

Do you think it is fair to say that it will be comparable to four years ago?

I would say, yes, at least, yes. It’s a very important election. This is the election that could very well decide the direction of the country and whether the 1 percent continues to have control or whether we are going to start moving towards rectifying the imbalances in this country that have prevented the 99 percent from enjoying the benefits of this economy. 

What’s new is that we are talking about and debating equality. Like in Wisconsin, we were trying to have a debate about collective bargaining for decades, and we couldn’t do it. Along comes Scott Walker, and he gives us a great opportunity to have that debate. People have been talking about things that are wrong for the economy, for quite some time. It was this movement that actually gave it some spark and made people talk about it. 

How much impact is there from these statewide fights in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere? Do you think they’re going to strengthen labor’s hand in this year’s political fights?

Significantly, and for a couple of reasons. We now are doing the year-round mobilization and education. We are talking not just to members but to all workers. We have had a debate about collective bargaining and by 70 some percent the American public supports collective bargaining and the things that we have been talking about. We are saying that it’s time for politicians to put that extreme ideology aside and get back to work on what they were elected to do – create jobs and restore balance to our economy. 

It’s also drawn a much brighter line between what most Democrats and many Republicans stand for. What happened in Wisconsin drew a bright line. What happened in Ohio drew a bright line. What happened in Indiana drew a bright line. 

A lot of people think these state fights and increased interest in the importance of statewide races this year might actually take money and time away from the congressional and the presidential races. Do you think there is a competition for resources?

No, I think they are intertwined. If you are in a state, it doesn’t matter what part of the ballots you are talking about. If you are talking about issues that are good for working people, it’s going to resonate up and down on the ballot. Are we going to select things more carefully? Yes, we are going to select races and set our priorities and go after them. But again I think that it’s a false choice, because I think they complement one another.

Say you are doing a walk in a precinct; you are going to be talking about the candidates from President, Governor, Senator, state, and local representatives, about all of them. So it’s complementing one another. 

Besides Working America and the Super PAC as ways as speaking to nonmembers, are any other parts of your strategy aimed at reaching beyond the membership itself?

Yes, we are going to have full-time staff in some places that won’t just be in for the election and then be back out. We are going to target several states, and they will have full-time staff and they’ll stay in place, twelve months a year and in between cycles. They will be reaching out to community partners and developing those partnerships between election cycles. 

Any example of a coalition you have in mind? Something like We Are Wisconsin” exists as a coalition and reaches both union and nonunion members with a pro-worker message. At this point coalitions like that don’t exist in every state.

Well it’s going to be broader than that. We are going to be working with all the progressive groups out there, whether it’s the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a religious group, a number of those, Hispanic groups, are coming together for us being able to work together as partners on an on-going basis, not just during an election. 

Looking at political work for the coming year, what do you see as the greatest challenge that you face?

RT: One of them obviously is the flood of money unleashed by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision, saying that money equals free speech so that any group can dump $10 or $20 or $100 million dollars if they choose into buying politicians in any state. That is obviously a big challenge. Getting the structure in place quickly that we need to have in place and doing the outreach to nonunion workers and to all workers as well is going to be a real challenge. 

In terms of message and ideology and policies, do you see any challenges, or do you think basically the country is with you if you can simply get the message out?

I think that there are always going to be issues on policy that we have to reconcile but we are better off coming together to reconcile rather than fighting against each other. We don’t get anywhere. Yes, there will be policy issues we don’t agree on, there will be strategy issues we disagree on, but continuing to talk and reconcile is the best way to do that. Continuing to educate and mobilize on a 12-month a year basis is going to be ultimately the salvation for working people and what allow us to create the imbalances in the economy. 

Do you think that if labor’s progressive message got out, that basically a majority of Americans will support those ideas?

I think there is no question about that. What are we talking about? We are talking about a decent wage for everybody, raising minimum wage. We are talking about collective bargaining so workers can come together and have an independent and get a fair share of what they produce. We saw the polls on that, some 70 percent of Americans, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents agreed with that. We are talking healthcare for everybody, pension security for people, things that by a large majority the American people support. 

And yet we still see polls where a plurality of people support repealing the affordable care act.

RT: Yeah, you do. The challenge for us out there is to continue to educate. Is it a perfect bill? No. Is it a step forward? Without a question, it’s a step forward in this country to get healthcare as a matter of right for everybody in this country, not as a matter of privilege. 

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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.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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