Politicians of all ideologies have failed American workers in an era of rising corporate profits and declining wages, the nation’s top labor leader said Monday, vowing to pressure candidates running for president in 2016 to address the issue.
“That’s the stick we’ll use to measure every candidate,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
The nation’s largest association of workers is meeting in Atlanta this week to work on its strategy for the upcoming campaign. The leader of the 12.5-million member organization said higher wages can be a “unifying progressive value,” but acknowledged unions are struggling to connect with voters skeptical of the benefits of organized labor.
As an example, he cited the success of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican presidential contender who curtailed bargaining rights for public employees in his state.
Walker survived a subsequent recall attempt and then won re-election, and lawmakers in Wisconsin are now pushing to pass right-to-work legislation that would limit the organizing power of private-sector unions.
“Elections have consequences,” Trumka said. “The economy is nothing but a set of rules that make the winners and losers. Those rules are made by the people we elect. We should elect people who change the rules.”
Trumka said the AFL-CIO plans to sponsor “wage summits” in the four early-voting states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. The organization also wants to focus on what Trumka called political “divisiveness” that he said drives many Americans to vote against their economic interests.
That approach generally aligns with a Democratic National Committee analysis, released Saturday, of the party’s 2014 losses. It concluded the party has failed to communicate its core values, particularly to working-class white voters.
“If you want to talk to the working people … tell them how you’re going to make their lives better,” Trumka said.
Trumka said labor has a “good relationship” with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the favorite for the Democratic nomination if, as expected, she runs.
“She’ll get a chance to make that case,” Trumka said. “I’m not going to make it for her or against her.”
This week’s AFL-CIO meeting comes amid a long decline in organized labor’s influence. According to a 2014 study from the Pew Research Center, the share of all American wage and salary workers who belonged to a union declined from 20 percent in 1983 to 11 percent in 2013. The peak came in 1954, at 34.8 percent.
Trumka described priorities for 2016 that put his organization partly at odds with both major parties. He emphasized the AFL-CIO’s opposition to President Barack Obama’s effort to win “fast-track” authority to negotiate trade deals, saying the “undemocratic, unpatriotic” proposal would lead to lower wages in the U.S. because of increased overseas competition.
He also repeated AFL-CIO’s endorsement of a broad overhaul of the country’s immigration system that many Republicans oppose. Trumka said the current system floods the market with the cheap labor of workers who are living in the country illegally.
“Employers use that to lower wages for everyone,” he said. Integrating more workers into the marketplace legally, he said, “not only is the morally right thing to do, it’s the economically right thing to do.”