Last week in The Nation, we looked at one of the most positive trends in recent labor history: a pattern of unions signaling that they will put more of their “political” money into grassroots organizing and coalition building – as opposed to tosimply placingthe movement’s financial and foot-soldier resources at the service of whatever Democratic candidate happens to be on the ballot.
Unions such as the Service Employees and National Nurses United are investing in smart, grassroots projects in the states – seeking to build on the protest and politics model developed in Wisconsin,wheremass protests against anti-labor initiatives signaled an opening for labor togo on the offensive. At the same time, key unions such asthe Firefighters have signaled that, because of their disappointment with Republicans and Democrats at the federal level, they will be putting all their political money into state and local races and related projects.
Now, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is stepping up with a plan for unions to declare “independence” and back candidates – no matter what their party affiliation – who are committed to support workers and their unions.
Trumka, who was in Wisconsin early and has visited most of the states where battles over labor rights and cuts in public services are playing out, has made no secret of his interest in building on the energy of the new state-based movements.
It is with this in mind that he is now talking about changing the way labor practices politics. And that’s a very good thing.
“We are looking hard at how we work in the nation’s political arena. We have listened hard, and what workers want is an independent labor movement that builds the power of working people — in the workplace and in political life,”the AFL-CIO president said in a Friday National Press Club address that could turn out to be one of the most important speeches of the 2012 election cycle. “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.”
Trumka is not saying that labor unions will no longer back the Democratic party and Democratic candidates – up to and including President Obama. As in the past, labor will lean toward the party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. What Trumka is saying, however, is that labor will not simply back Democrats because they are Democrats.
Indeed, he is putting compromise-prone and all-talk-no-action Democrats on notice.
“We’ll be less inclined to support people in the future that aren’t standing up and actually supporting job creation and the type of things that we’re talking about. It doesn’t matter what party they come from. It will be a measuring stick,” Trumka explained on the eve of the speech.
The Press Club address, a high-profile initiative by the leading figure in the American labor movement, included a warning to Democratic officials who think they can make draconian cuts in education and public services – or that they can undermine union rights – simply by claiming that the Republicans would make crueler cuts.