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AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka On Unions, Blue Dogs, Health Care

The other night, a group of bloggers got to sit down with Richard Trumka, the newly elected President of the AFL-CIO, as part of the Building the New Economy conference. In the meeting he focused on how the economic engine of the last 30 years, essentially debt-financed consumer spending, asset bubbles and Wall Street casino gambling, hasn’t worked, and how we need to create a new model. He listed two key goals: 1) re-regulating the financial sector (and I’ll have more on that later, he basically thinks the current bills won’t work); 2) re-creating the manufacturing base of the economy, along with our R&D and technology sectors, which we’re losing at a rapid pace. Trumka said that the AFL-CIO will come out with a “progressive agenda” around the first of the year, something that can be used in the electoral cycle. This is part of the “political and economic narrative” he said that organized labor had to create, to find a way to talk about the economy that resonates with working people.

Marcy Wheeler and I caught up with Trumka after that meeting. We wanted to ask him about that report on Blue Dog PAC contributions plummeting recently, and how individual Blue Dogs still thrive on donations from organized labor. Luckily a Flip cam was nearby, and we captured the exchange.

A couple things are important here. Trumka says that often the local federations don’t have the greatest sense about how their lawmakers are selling them out in Washington, and shifting to “full-time campaign mode,” with their organizing arm Working America moving to a legislative map, will allow for much more voter education throughout the year and not just at election time.

I also found this part interesting:

ME: Do you see some protection at the state level, where they, the state labor feds say, “No, this is our guy, and they’ve helped us in the past,” and things like that? And then you see what happens when they get to Washington…

MW: With regards to the donations, the Blue Dog donations.

RT: Yeah, there’s probably some of that. But more what happens is, there was a place I remember about ten years ago, they had pet unions. And these politicians would all have a pet union. And they’d do everything they could for the pet union, and screw everybody else. And then when it came time for elections, they’d call on the pet union to try to help them. Hopefully we’re getting past that now, where we’re all going to stand together. I can tell you what, members of the AFL-CIO are pretty angry about what’s been happening lately, and I don’t think they’re in the mood. Now, some of them have actually pledged not to give any money until there’s a turnaround. Some of them have erected a few litmus tests and we’ll see if that follows up. We don’t have that policy right now. But that’s not to say that couldn’t happen. Because our executive council is really upset with what they’re doing.

I’ve seen a bit of this out in California. State and local councils operate as their own fiefdoms, and don’t always work together even if they exist under the same umbrella. Trumka says that’s changing.

Later on, we asked Trumka about health care, and the Senators who say they won’t vote for cloture.

You know, I think it’s Un-American, that’s what I think.

Not mincing words.

Trumka is basically vowing to have organized labor out in force across the country, getting involved in many races where they haven’t been before, and he ticked off lots of specific states: “Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, Connecticut.” So some politicians are on notice.

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David Dayen

David Dayen