Labor leader details federation’s new ‘Super-PAC’ to mobilize nonunion workers, hold politicians accountable
“This is the time for boldness,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said yesterday in a pre-Labor Day press conference. Implicitly, he was directing a message about the urgency of enacting large-scale job creation programs and policies to President Barack Obama, who next Thursday is expected to present a new proposal to Congress to reduce unemployment — persistently stuck above 9 percent.
But he also had in mind labor’s plans to reach out politically to all workers, not just union members, in an expanded, year-round operation that will try to hold officials accountable as well as to elect those who promise to support workers’ interests.
Assessing the federal government’s actions on behalf of workers, Trumka praised Obama’s Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis (“She’s enforcing [the Fair Labor Standards Act] better than any secretary in the last two decades”) and the business-besieged National Labor Relations Board (“They’ve done a good job’).
But he offered a measured, lukewarm judgment on Obama’s record. “I think he’s delivered on some things,” Trumka says. “I think he hasn’t delivered on other things. We continue to push him on things good for working people. The thing we continue to push him on is job creation,” which the president would be willing to tackle more aggressively if he had any Republican cooperation.
Trumka has frequently pledged, and did so again yesterday, to be a “new, independent voice in our politics.” That is unlikely to involve withholding support for Obama or most Democratic candidates, given the Republican alternatives.
The independence Trumka promises will result from a new union effort to reach out beyond union members to nonunion working people. At its heart will be a new Super-PAC (or political action committee) of the type that has flourished after the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, mainly collecting unlimited amounts of money from corporations and rich donors for “independent” support of Republican candidates.
The new AFL-CIO Super-PAC would be an “independent advocacy arm” of the labor movement, not directly funding campaigns but a “year-round mobilization independent of parties,” moving from electoral work to advocacy on issues and holding politicians accountable, Trumka says.
“The Super-PAC will allow us to talk to workers beyond our members, to reach out to other workers and bring them into the fold and allow us to be more independent and allow us to build a structure beholden to working people 365 days a year, in leap years 366 days a year,” he says.
Partly that will involve expanding work already started with Working America, the 3-million member AFL-CIO “community affiliate” that recruits supporters door-to-door in working-class neighborhoods.
Trumka did not say precisely how much money the Super-PAC would try to raise or where it would come from, except for acknowledging the expectation of many small worker donations, but he did not rule out contributions from big donors. “We’ll take ‘em [donations] wherever they come from,” he says.
But he did hint that labor might be more discriminating about support for Democrats who are not reliably pro-worker. “To our friends, [the new Super-PAC] gives us greater ability to help them,” he says. “To our acquaintances, we’ll do to them what they do to us, say we love you and wish them good luck.”
For at least the past 15 years, AFL-CIO political strategists have talked about developing a year-round political force, and some unions within the AFL-CIO, such as the Steelworkers and Communications Workers, and the Service Employees outside the federation, have moved on their own to do so. Unions by law have had to raise specific voluntary political contributions from members in order to contribute to campaigns or reach nonmembers, but they can use dues money only for educating and mobilizing members.
The AFL-CIO has pushed Obama hard to expand infrastructure spending both to create jobs and to address long-term productivity needs of the overall economy. As he did at the White House today, Trumka has often joined with his usual arch-rival, Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue, to press for quick, large-scale renewal and funding of infrastructure legislation, which includes — for labor, at least — the Surface Transportation Act, Clean Water Act, Federal Aviation Authority funding, and other measures.
But the six-point AFL-CIO job program also includes reviving manufacturing and changing trade rules, direct public service employment, aid to state and local governments, extended unemployment benefits and help to keep homeowners in their homes, and Wall Street reform to generate Main Street jobs.
Executive vice-president Arlene Holt Baker highlighted labor’s intentions to fight the proliferating Republican state legislative proposals requiring government-issued voter ID cards. Despite the lack of evidence of voter fraud, Republicans seek the plan, which Baker called voter suppression legislation comparable to a new poll tax, since it is likely to disenfranchise primarily voters who are poor, elderly or people of color. Unions are a critical part of a drive in Ohio to put repeal of the state’s new voter ID law to a referendum this fall.
Against the deficit hysteria, Trumka argued that a deficit for investment in job creation made sense, like a loan for a house or college education, and that it would create the economic and employment growth that can produce revenue (along with repeal of Bush tax cuts) to reduce the debt most expeditiously.
Such rational arguments may sway some voters but not Republican members of Congress, “who would prefer their country to fail than their president to succeed,” as Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf trenchantly put it.
That leaves labor in a difficult position, advocating sensible, if bold, action from a president they wish they could support more forcefully. Yet even if he were improbably bold, he is likely at best to change the tone of debate more than the direction of the country, given Republican opposition. But even a new debate would be progress.
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.