Trumka to Lay Out His Union Priorities

Posted January 18, 2011 at 6:14pm

Richard Trumka does not have a simple task ahead.

The president of the AFL-CIO will give a major state-of-the-unions address today to try to invigorate the labor movement’s agenda, which suffered a blow in last year’s midterm elections.

Unions will be largely on the defensive with a GOP-controlled House. And though the Obama administration offers promise for some of labor’s priorities, on some issues — such as trade policy — even the White House won’t be much of an ally.

But Trumka’s speech will try to set out a vision for a “great future as a nation” beginning with job creation and economic policies that help the working and middle classes.

“In this topsy-turvy world, the same leaders who fought so valiantly to cut taxes for the wealthy turn right around and lecture us about the imminent bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare,” Trumka will say in his address, according to prepared remarks sent out by the union’s press office. “We are falling behind because we are governing from fear, not from confidence. And we have let our transnational business titans convince our politicians that our national strength lies in their profits, not our jobs. We have failed to invest in the good-wage growth path that is essential to our survival.”

But the unions, even some allies argue, are losing ground.

“In terms of where the politics are and their percentage of members, they’re in real trouble,” one union insider said. “Their bastion of support, public-sector unions, are in trouble.”

Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s legislative director, said that many of the union’s priorities will be determined “by what the Congress throws at us.”

“We hope we’ll be working with the Congress to invest in jobs,” he said. “The president will reassert his belief that the federal government has a role in modernizing and repairing our infrastructure. We’ll work with anybody to get that done, Republicans included.”

Samuel said the labor movement would fight any attempts by the House GOP to roll back worker protections or to defund the Labor Department in an attempt to keep it from enforcing labor laws. “That would be a problem, and I’m not sure what we could do about it, frankly,” Samuel said.

As for his boss’ speech today, Samuel called it “a pretty important moment for the head of the U.S. labor movement to talk about what’s at stake” for the country’s workers.

But don’t expect Trumka to woo any new supporters in big business.

“Let’s face it, the state of labor right now is they took a big loss in the last election,” said Randy Johnson, who battles with unions regularly as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits.

In particular, the chamber has been an opponent of one of labor’s priorities, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize. “They overplayed their hands in pushing for the Employee Free Choice Act, and I think they annoyed some of their friends on Capitol Hill in pushing such a ridiculous bill,” Johnson said.

David Madland, director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, said the labor movement’s goals, in general, will remain the same. But it’s the strategy that will change as they push from the outside and rely more on trying to woo the general public, not just union members.

“It’s a less friendly Congress to them, and their only hope for change is to draw in broad public support for their agenda,” Madland said.

That makes Trumka’s speech and the union’s messaging this Congress even more important.

Another top priority for unions, Madland said, will be to fend off the “scapegoating” of unionized public-sector workers. Republicans have said they hope to cut the size of government, but union leaders said late last week that they would launch a multimillion-dollar campaign to thwart efforts to freeze unionized government workers’ pay or cut benefits.

The Teamsters union, which is not part of the AFL-CIO, also expects a rough ride in the House this Congress, but it is still looking for areas of agreement with freshman Republicans. One of the Teamsters’ priorities is to put the brakes on a cross-border trucking program with Mexico. The union also opposes free-trade agreements with Korea and Colombia.

“We need to educate the new Members, some of whom we didn’t actually support on the campaign,” said Lisa Kinard, the Teamsters director of federal legislation and regulation. “But there might be some opportunity to find common ground — they might not be for opening our borders to Mexican trucks.”

A spokesman for the Service Employees International Union said that even though SEIU isn’t part of the AFL-CIO, they share an agenda when it comes to jobs.

“Sure we’re going to have our differences here and there, but overall the focus is jobs and we’re all united on that,” the spokesman said. “This is a crisis facing working families.”

The SEIU is also pushing Congress to strengthen investments in infrastructure — a move that would create jobs — and for immigration reforms.