Labor's Political Independence and the Stakes in the 2012 Election

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Remarks by AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, National Press Club, Washington, DC
May 20, 2011


Good morning.  Thank you all for joining me here, and thank you to the National Press Club for inviting me to speak.

Friends, how can we make sense of the spectacle that's been unfolding across the American political landscape?

Politicians in Wisconsin, Ohio and a dozen other states are trying to take away workers' right to organize and bargain for a better life.

But that's not all.  In state after state, politicians are attacking voting rights by imposing ID requirements, shortening early voting periods, blocking young people from voting because they're too "liberal" and even levying criminal penalties and fines for breaking arbitrary rules in the voter registration process.  So it will be harder for people to vote—especially the least privileged among us. Just in Wisconsin, listen to the list of who doesn't have state-issued photo IDs that will be needed to cast a ballot under legislation that Gov. Scott Walker will sign next week: 23 percent of elderly Wisconsinites; 59 percent of Latina women; 55 percent of African American men overall; and 78 percent of African American men who are 18 to 24 years old.

Budget proposals unveiled in Washington and state capitals across our country this year revealed a despicable canvas of cruelty.  In Michigan, a state senator thinks foster children should be required by law to purchase second-hand clothes.  In Maine, the governor thinks more children should go to work.  In North Carolina, the legislature thinks we should balance the state budget on the backs of autistic children.  In Arizona, the state Senate president floats the idea of locking up protesting public employees in desert tent city jails. In New York, a billionaire mayor proposes to fire 5,000 teachers rather than tax the bonuses of the Wall Street executives who brought down the American economy.

And not just meanness.  Destructiveness.  A willful desire to block the road to the future.  How else can you explain governors of states with mass unemployment refusing to allow high-speed rail lines to be built in their states?  How else can you explain these same governors' plans to defund higher education, close schools and fire teachers, when we know that without an educated America, we have no future?

Here in Washington, the Republicans in Congress have defunded housing counselors and fuel aid for the poor, and they are blocking worker training and transportation infrastructure.

But the final outrage of these budgets is hidden in the fine print.  In state after state and here in Washington, these so called fiscal hawks are actually doing almost nothing to cut the deficit.  The federal budget embraced by House Republicans, for example, cuts $4.3 trillion in spending, but gives out $4.2 trillion in tax cuts that disproportionately benefit wealthy individuals and corporations. Florida is gutting aid for jobless workers and using the money saved to cut already-low business taxes. At the end of the day, our governments will be in no better fiscal shape than when we started—they are just being used as a pass-through to enrich the already rich—at a time when inequality stands at historic levels.

Think about the message these budgets send: Sacrifice is for the weak.  The powerful and well-connected get tax cuts.

All these incredible events should be understood as part of a single challenge. It is not just a political challenge—it's a moral challenge.  Because these events signal a new and dangerous phase of a concerted effort to change the very nature of America—to turn this into an "I've got mine" nation and replace the land of liberty and justice for all with the land of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.

You see, I believe the United States is not a place as much as it is an idea. For working people, the United States of America has offered, from its foundation, a promise that everyone can be full participants in national life.  A promise that we the people make the rules so that hard work is rewarded with economic security and a fair share in the wealth we all help create.  That promise has always been a work in progress.  This year we commemorate the 150th anniversary of our bloodiest war – a war that resulted in the extension of the American promise to the African Americans who did so much of the work of creating the United States.

We were the first country in the history of the world to embrace the idea that you don't have to own land to vote—that citizenship comes from where you live, not what you own or who your parents were. We were the first country to make land available to those who would work the land—in the Homestead Act.  And in the modern era, when giant corporations dominated our economy, we pioneered the idea that we had a right to a voice on the job—a right made real when we came together to form unions and bargain collectively.  And while Boeing and the Chamber of Commerce may not like it, the law of the land protects working people who exercise that right against any retaliation by their employers.  

In the 1960s, public employees won those same rights.  Working people remember that these rights were not easily won.   The pivotal 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike began with two men crushed to death in a garbage truck, and ended with Martin Luther King giving his life for the cause of public workers' right to organize together.

From the beginning of this country, through our efforts and our ideas, working people have made the American Dream real.  And what is that dream? It is the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules you will enjoy economic security and build a better future for your children.  It is not that a few of us will be rich, but that all of us will be treated fairly, that we will look after each other, and that we will all have a share in the wealth we create together.  

This spring working people are engaged in a great struggle to defend their dream.  In Green Bay and Indianapolis, in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and in Columbus, Ohio.  And not just in the Midwest.  In New York and Los Angeles, in Florida and Texas—in every corner of our nation.

This struggle began after last November's elections brought to power politicians in state capitals across the heartland who had a hidden agenda.  An agenda worked out at posh resorts with the Koch Brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council and other shadowy groups.  Politicians like John Kasich and Scott Walker campaigned promising to do something about jobs, only to reveal when they took office that their jobs agenda was to make them disappear.  But their real passion was for eliminating the rights of working people and destroying their unions—who are standing in the way of their agenda.

In response, working people took to the streets.  On April 4th, under the banner, "We are One," we came together all across America, and then we did so again on May 1st when we stood together with our immigrant brothers and sisters saying again that we truly are one.

In signs all across the rotunda in the Wisconsin state house, we proclaimed we were there to defend the principle that in America, we look after each other.  One of the people who was there is here with us today, and I'd like to introduce him. Alex Hanna is a Graduate Assistant at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and a co-president of the Teaching Assistants Associates of the American Federation of Teachers. Alex stood up for teachers and other public workers in Madison over the last couple of months, even as he built solidarity with workers in the Middle East. His family comes from Egypt and he strengthened links between movements for change around the world.

Thank you, Alex, for your inspiration.

Alex embodies the fact that we are not a nation of isolated individuals, we are a land of communities, of families.  Our republic, our democracy, is an expression of our solidarity, our common values and our common life as a nation.

In America, firefighters rush into burning buildings every day, risking their lives to save people they have never met.  Social workers care for other people's abused children, and home health workers provide care and companionship to those who need it.  Every day you and I pay our Social Security taxes and Medicare, and that same money is sent out again to provide comfort and security to other people's parents and grandparents.        

This is not just a matter of morality – but it also makes economic sense.  And never more so than today.   It will simply not be enough to beat back the Scott Walkers, the John Kasichs, and the Koch Brothers.  America's economic fate depends on us coming together to educate our children, to invest in our infrastructure, to face the threat of climate change and to reverse the yawning economic inequality that threatens our future.

Let me be specific.  Unemployment stands at 9%.  Underemployment is at 16%.  Housing prices are falling, and foreclosures remain at historic highs.  Economic growth is hovering at around 2% annually—not enough to put a dent in unemployment, especially as tax cuts expire, as the Recovery Act winds down -- and state and local governments gear up for more deep cuts. 

Yet instead of having a national conversation about putting America back to work to build our future, the debate here in Washington is about how fast we can destroy the fabric of our country, about breaking the promises we made to our parents and grandparents.  Understand, the Ryan budget destroys jobs—it destroys almost all the jobs created during this recovery.  It guts Medicare.  It attacks Social Security, the one piece of our retirement security system that actually works.  And now we see Speaker Boehner and his colleagues engaged in a new round of blackmail—with a ransom note that reads: "Cut Medicare, dismantle the government, destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs to fund more tax cuts for the rich, or we will cause the United States to default on its debts.

" Why is our national conversation in such a destructive place?  Not because we are impoverished.  We have never been richer. The American economy has never produced as much wealth as it does today. But we feel poor because the wealth in our society has flowed to a handful among us, and they and the politicians who pander to the worst instincts of the wealthy would rather break promises to our parents and grandparents and deny our children a future than pay their fair share of taxes.

America's real deficit is a moral deficit—where political choices come down to forcing foster children to wear hand-me-downs while cutting taxes for profitable corporations.

Powerful political forces are seeking to silence working people—to drive us out of the national conversation.  I can think of no greater proof of the moral decay in our public life than that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker would dare give a Martin Luther King Day speech hailing Dr. King at the same time that he drafted a bill to take away collective bargaining rights from sanitation workers in Wisconsin.

The ultimate goal of those who blame workers for Wall Street's economic crisis is to unravel the fabric of our common life in pursuit of greed and power.

In this environment, working people and our unions must do more than just protect our own right to a voice in the life of our nation.  We must raise our voice to win a better future for all working families here in America and around the globe.

Here's what we are going to do. First, we are going to use that voice to end the Scott Walker agenda as a viable political strategy by winning recall elections in Wisconsin and citizen vetoes of destructive legislation in other states and retaking state houses.

Then we will spend the summer holding elected leaders in Congress as well as the states accountable on one measure: Are they improving or degrading life for working families?

And moving forward, 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.

Working people want a labor movement strong enough to help return balance to our economy, fairness to our tax system, security to our families and moral and economic standing to our nation. 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.

It doesn't matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside—the outcome is the same either way. If leaders aren't blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working families' interests, working people will not support them. This is where our focus will be—now, in 2012 and beyond.

We will uphold the dignity of work and restore respect for working people. In this season's political battles, teachers, nurses and firefighters have been vilified. Decent jobs with economic security have been cast as more than America's workers deserve. Low-wage, part-time, temporary, no-benefit work is being sold as the "new normal" for our economy.

We know that only a dynamic, effective movement of working people working together can reclaim the value of work. Our unions must reach out to every working person in America—to those whose jobs have been outsourced and down-sized, to carwash workers in Los Angeles, to domestic workers who have few legal rights, to freelancers and young people who have "gigs" rather than jobs. And together with the AFL-CIO's construction and manufacturing workers, pilots and painters, plumbers and public employees, bakers and others, we will be heard.

The stakes are so high, for working families, for America. Will we be a country ruled by greed, by people who would cut or take pensions away from first responders, people who would take away the fundamental human rights of our workers, who would choose tax breaks for the richest among us over a future for all of us? Or will we be a country where we choose the future, where we look out for each other, where all of us have a voice?

We'll only win investments in our future if we again embrace the idea that we are one national community.  That our very identity is bound up with the promise that all of us have a voice—in the workplace, at the ballot box—and that we are responsible in a deep sense for each other.  The fabric of our government, our democratic republic, is about making that responsibility for each other real.

This is the message working people have always brought to our national conversation.  It is the message Alex Hanna and hundreds of thousands of others took to the streets of the Midwest this spring and that we will take to the polling places of the heartland in recall elections and in citizen veto campaigns in the coming months. And it is the message we will continue to shout this year, and next, and the next, until we are heard.

The moral character of America is worth fighting for, and that is exactly what working people are going to do in the days and months to come.  Thank you.

Photo by Teresa Albano/PeoplesWorld.org/cc by 2.0/Flickr

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  • This article represents the real view of a leadership and working class perspective today in the United States of America.
    It aims to better the condition of the most and the least exploited and oppressed-no limited, no "pragmatic",no
    "acceptable"plan to the expropriators of Wall Street to the ruin of Main Street-what we see before our very eyes in a 10% unemployment and a 16% underemployment economy,with genocidal indices skyrocketing for working people-and even more for African Americans and Latinos.
    Very interestingly, this article is next to an article, "Engels on American elections".
    Brother Joel Wendland writes that we would observe pragmatism rather than radicalism therein.
    But 130 yrs after the Engels article, after our Germany Marxists,Georgites and Knights of Labor, in our "real general working class movement", described by brother Richard Trumka above, why write as if the communists are insisting on a "perfect" platform-what was radical then is quite politically accepted and almost goes without saying now-among the general working class electorate.
    In a basic way, the working class will accept ONLY radical solutions because the betterment of their conditions require those radical solutions. When brother Trumka demands that "domestic workers, freelancers,manufacturing workers,painters,plumbers,public workers,bakers and others" will be heard when they demand democracy and the right to defend one another in the face of rulers taking the ballot AND the economic right of collective bargaining, this IS a pragmatic program, which in the very mature historical material conditions in the United States of America today spell a definite radicalism.
    The dialectic is that yesterday's(1880s)radicalism or "perfect platform" is today's (2010s)pragmatism, which when applied, take on revolutionary significance,if in a "process involving successive phases"continues, to promise more radical, needed change in the future.
    Now is the time to reap the wise counsel Engels resulting from the letter of Engels to Wischnewetsky, for we have passed through necessary phases, and now have a whole new set of phases which"...represent the movement of the future in the movement of the present."
    There is much organizing to be done, to marshal the vote in November, 2012 and the reason why this is necessary to save our country,and its essential working class foundations are graphically outlined in brother Trumka's speech here:
    WE NEED A MASSIVE MATERIAL INVESTMENT IN THE WHOLE WORKING PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
    This must be demanded in the face of a massive plan to steal collective bargaining,the vote ballot, disinvest in public works,public projects, government ownership and responsibility by Wall Street rulers and bandits, who have brought our unique democratic republic which protects the working poor, all the exploited, and the all powerful united working people, who are the moral and material strength of our great country, to take our country to the brink of destruction and extinction.
    This demand for an equal chance and equal share for all people, must be expressed and fought for at the ballot box in 2012, independent of Republicans, Democrats, and even Independents and Greens, for it is the demand of the proletarian, that same proletarian,only at a different phase, of that of 1886.
    We need the peace of the economic justice this would supply for the whole united working people of the United States of America.

    Posted by peaceapplause, 05/23/2011 1:21pm (7 years ago)

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