The midterm elections are twenty-seven days away, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has been keeping a relentless road schedule campaigning for Democratic candidates. One thing he’d like to see more of: talk about basic economic fairness issues.
“I think more populism, or more focus on the economic issues, would be helpful,” he told a small group of reporters at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, DC. “I think it would help drive turnout as well. I think the candidates that focus only on negative things, doing everything negative, have a real danger of having their base go flat.”
Trumka said that in talking to workers on the campaign trail, he frequently confronts a problem that has bedeviled Democrats in many past midterms: apathy. Union members wonder why it matters if they vote.
“They say that at the plant gate, at doors, on the telephone,” Trumka said. “I try to explain to them that the economy is not like the weather. Those that are in power, and those that want to be in power, want us to believe the economy is like the weather—there’s nothing you can do about it, so don’t bother. But the economy…it’s nothing but a bunch of rules. And those rules decide the winners and losers, and those rules are made by the men and women we elect. That’s why this election is important.”
The dire situation in the Middle East, the Ebola outbreak and scandals at the Secret Service and the Veterans Affairs department have no doubt clouded the picture and increased apathy, Trumka acknowledged. But the AFL-CIO is trying to break through with an active on-the-ground operation.
Trumka said the AFL-CIO is “about where we were” at this point in the 2010 midterms—which could be taken as an ominous sign, since Democrats got blown out at the polls that year.
But he did claim to see an uptick in volunteers and electioneering on the ground in key states, and he believes voters are beginning to focus on the upcoming races. He also appeared buoyant about Alison Lundergan Grimes’ chances of unseating Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; at one point he declared outright that she would win.
The AFL-CIO is doing things differently from 2010 in some key ways. They launched an independent expenditure committee, the Workers’ Voices PAC, that allows the union to communicate directly with voters. (Strict campaign finance laws on unions generally only permits political communication with members). The AFL-CIO is also getting involved in key statehouse races and hoping to avoid the tide of state-level anti-worker legislation that emerged after the 2010 elections.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Maine Governor Paul LePage, two leaders in that fight, are on the ballot this year, and the AFL-CIO is very active in both races. Trumka had just come from campaigning in Maine for Democratic candidate Mike Michaud.
But Trumka said he was equally worried about the Republican candidates running for governor who, like Walker and LePage did in 2010, are staying quiet about their anti-worker ambitions.
He said open talk about dismantling unions “has subsided for the election, and right after the election it will raise its ugly head. If certain governors win, they’ll use it as a false mandate to say, ‘see, going after workers is what this populace wants me to do.’ Even though they don’t run on it,” Trumka said. “I wish all of them would say their real agenda; then the American public would really get to vote on which agenda you want.”