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AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka
sent his strongest signal yet about the labor movement’s frustration with the dysfunctional politics of the moment—where Republicans go to extremes on behalf of big banks and multinational corporations, Democrats compromise and working families are left out of the equation.
Speaking last Tuesday to the National Nurses United conference in Washington, where more than one thousand nurses from across the country rallied to begin the push to replace the politics of setting for less with a unapologetic demands for a new economic agenda, Trumka found a plenty of takers for his agressively progressive message.
“We want an independent labor movement strong enough to return balance to our economy, fairness to our tax system, security to our families and moral and economic standing to our nation,” declared Trumka, who in recent months has been repositioning the AFL-CIO as a force that will hold Republicans and Democrats to what he describes as “a simple standard: “Are they helping or hurting working families?”
“We can’t simply build the power of any political party or any candidate. For too long we’ve been left after the election holding a canceled check and asking someone to pay attention to us. No more! No more!” the federation president, a former United Mineworkers union chief, shouted above the cheers of the nurses.
Then he described a scenario all too familiar to union activists: that of trying to get officials who are supposed to be allies of the working Americans to act on their behalf with the same energy that Republicans bring to aiding corporations.
“For too long, we’ve been left after Election Day holding a canceled check, waving it about—‘Remember us? Remember us? Remember us?’—asking someone to pay a little attention to us,” recalled Trumka, who like many union leaders was frustrated with the failure of the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and other needed labor law reforms. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a snootful of that shit!”
There was no way to misread Trumka’s message for Democrats who have strayed on issues ranging from EFCA to trade policy to mounting an absolute defense of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
“When it comes to politics, we’re looking for real champions of working women and men. And I have a message for some of our “friends.” It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside—the outcome is the same either way,” he explained. “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.”
Trumka chose exactly the right setting in which to deliver that message. The NNU (which also welcomed this writer as a speaker at its gathering) has long advocated for a more miltant stance when it comes to politics, as evidenced this week by the union’s mass protest outside the headquarters of the US Chamber of Commerce. As the nurses blocked traffic, NNU executive director Rose Ann DeMoro led the crowd in chanting “Our street!” and then pointing at the Chamber building and shouting “Wall Street!”
That determination to take the fight to Wall Street is at the heart of the NNU’s new “Main Street Contract for the American People” that, among other things, demands that elected officials take a “Which Side Are You On?” pledge.
The pledge contrasts Wall Street’s push for “tax cuts for the rich and powerful” and “replacing Medicare with vouchers” with a Main Street Contract that seeks:
1. Jobs at living wages to reinvest in America.
2. Equal access to quality, public education.
3. Guaranteed healthcare with a single standard of care.
4. A secure retirement with the ability to retire in dignity.
5. Good housing, and protection from hunger.
6. A safe and healthy environment.
7. The right to collectively organize and bargain.
8. A just taxation system where corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share.
9. Restoring the promise—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.
As Trumka speaks about that “simple standard” to demand of elected officials, politicians and their parties, he and the rest of the labor movement could find few better places of beginning than that pledge to support the NNU’s “Main Street Contract for the American People.”
John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.