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Where to go, Mr. Trumka?

Concerning AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka’s National Press Club speech on Friday, Steven Greenhorse of The NYT Caucus wrote:

In what was advertised as a major policy address, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., Richard Trumka, denounced Republicans on Friday over their efforts to cut Medicare spending and curb collective bargaining while promising — in a warning to Democrats – that organized labor would show greater independence in politics. Mr. Trumka, in a speech at the National Press Club, was unsparing in attacking Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, and other Republicans who he said were elected on a platform of creating jobs, but have instead gone to war against public-sector unions to strip them of their collective bargaining rights. At the same time, he suggested, without naming names, that organized labor would withhold support from Democratic incumbents who had not fought hard enough against Republican efforts to curb collective bargaining or cut social programs.

But is a failure to name names or even chart a specific counter-course really indicative of showing “greater independence in politics?” That is the question, and the answer isn’t completely clear. It’s difficult to disagree with Trumka’scall for an end to austerity politics and policies. The most productive response to the current economic crisis, within the boundaries of liberal logic, would be to create jobs, preserve pensions, and provide health care to all Americans. And no, it’s neither a spending problem nor a revenue problem–it’s a fairness problem, which Trumka correctly recognized.

“Our national conversation right now is in a destructive place and the debate that we’re having is really over the moral character of the country . and it’s just going in the wrong direction with all of this cuts and all of this talk that we can’t afford secure jobs, good jobs anymore. We can’t afford health care. We can’t afford pensions,” he said. “The nation, right now, we feel poor. But we’re not, we’re a rich nation. We feel poor because most of the money is going to the people at the top. And yet the debate’s about how we can give more tax cuts to corporations who have had two years of record profits.”

Trumka’s critique of an economic elite which values power over moral decency will surely resonate among his 11 million member constituency and millions more with a sympathetic ear.

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.

But where does labor go? A much more difficult question–and one that poses a unique challenge to independent political groups, activists, consultants, and the independent media. For some, this is a signal that a layer of labor will vote Republican, advantaging the party primarily at fault for forcing austerity. Surely this isn’t what Trumka intends, but the GOP has taken advantage of labor’s disappointment with the Democrats before.

Sympathetic voices see in Trumka’s call a new model of independent progressivism. John Nichols at The Nation called it a “post-Wisconsin game plan,” and points out that unions such as the Service Employees and National Nurses United are supporting independent, grassroots efforts rather than simply throwing money and bodies to the Democrats. Trumka won’t say he will support third party candidates, per se, becauseright now, objectively speaking, he probably won’t. Even the Nation’s Nichols, though, stops short of calling for active support of third party candidates, insisting that unions back progressive primary challengers (which is fine, for what it’s worth), and threaten to withhold money from Democrats. Nichols is right that policies matter more than party labels, but there’s a whole new universe of policy available if the new ideas of independent progressive third parties like the Greens or socialists gain a seat at the table (there’s a reason Bernie Sanders is often the lone voice of reason on the Hill). Daily Kos is spinning this as an attack on Republicans. It certainly is, in an offhanded way, and a foundational one at that.

Trumka’s specificity is otherwise refreshing, but it’s also gutsy and potentially a liability. By promising to back any candidate who is pro-labor, regardless of party affiliation, Trumka has not only put the Democratic Party on notice, but has written a verbal check he himself is answerable for. If it’s just a threat of less enthusiasm and financial support, then presumably the Obama administration could do some nominal, ultimately meaningless things to placate Trumka and big labor. But an organized labor offensive in favor of a progressive third party? That would be significant on a number of levels–from the symbolic rejection of the two-party system to a re-assertion of labor’s independent character not seen for nearly a century in the USA.

Even a bullpen of progressive primary challengers–provided a few of them could win–would be refreshing–but some third party action in the mix could potentially prove transformative. Labor could even consider building its own party, while building alliances with other parties and groups across the independent progressive spectrum.

The conservative media is shrugging off, mocking, Trumka’s threat to the Democrats. The over-the-top Human Events calls him Obama’s chief labor thug, while Pajamas speculates Trumka spends as much time at the White Houseas a secret service agent. Even sympathetic media are putting the word “independent” in quote marks–because it’s hard to believe the labor leadership knows–really, specifically knows–where it’s going to go right now.

This is part of the reason why my optimism is cautious, and why I am anxiously awaiting further signals from organized labor concerning their willingness to fight the real fight. Either way, Trumka’s speech was timely and ought to be the starting point for a discussion on labor and independent progressives.

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About Matt J. Stannard

Policy Director for Commonomics USA, longtime writer, speaker, and legal & policy consultant on economic justice and public deliberation.