Labor’s Richard Trumka Delivers His Own State of the Union

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AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave a speech at D.C.’s National Press Club this morning — his own take on the state of the union, serving in part as a precursor to Obama’s upcoming speech.

He was flanked by a cast of individuals to put a human face to his political points. A 9/11 first responder named Stan introduced him, a lead-in to Trumka’s anger at how long it took to pass the James Zadroga bill, a measure that provided benefits and compensation to emergency workers harmed by toxic conditions at the World Trade Center. He brought young people who would have a path to citizenship if the DREAM Act had been passed. And he invited a child care provider named Ella from Ohio. Republican Governor-elect John Kasich has “made cracking down on Ella … his first priority,” he said in reference to Kasich’s recent comment that executive orders from former Gov. Ted Strickland allowing certain groups to unionize are “probably toast.”

The core of Trumka’s message was, unsurprisingly, jobs, jobs, jobs — with a side of finger-wagging directed at Washington politicians. He decried America’s wealth gap and asserted that politicians are hurting the country by cutting needed stimulative spending while giving tax cuts to high-income earners. He also played heavily on the fear that America’s best days are behind her, that it is becoming a third-world country while others ascend — and just hours before Chinese President Hu Jintao held a joint press conference with Obama a few blocks away.

“What should be crystal clear right now is that the United States is falling behind in the global economy,” he said. “We are falling behind because we are governing from fear, not from confidence … [Politicians are] betting on misery and anger, rather than hope and progress — and common sense.” Much of his rhetoric took a vague, admonishing, rhetoric-for-rhetoric’s-sake tone, but he also made some specific proposals, such as enacting a financial speculation tax of 0.05% to help pay for infrastructure projects.

That was this morning’s substance (of which you can read more here). But there was also style to consider.

This was the first political speech I’ve attended since coming back from Tucson and all the talk of toning down political rhetoric is fresh on the brain.

Trumka weighed in on that note on Jan. 10, issuing a statement, as many were, about the need to keep conversations civil in the wake of the Giffords shooting. Such talk “demonized public servants and candidates as ‘enemies’,” he said, “and has made them sound less than human. In the short run, it may inspire passions and votes. But in the long run, it’s toxic to the survival of rational discussion in our democracy.”

There wasn’t any violent rhetoric in his speech this morning, but his words sparked the question: Where does that line really lie? Certainly it’s this side of crosshairs, but how much exaggeration and hyperbole is healthy? Trumka accused politicians of “attacking” teachers, of “destroying” public institutions and “crushing” working people’s rights. He demonized CEOs such as Lloyd Blankfein and Rupert Murdoch as members of “the country’s ruling class [that] thinks that firefighters like Stan and teachers and nurse are the problem,” before mocking the “spiritual values” and “moral forces” that drives them.

I asked Trumka if he thought his speech served as a good example of the kind of rhetoric people should be using. He said yes. And perhaps it was. He made a passionate case with specific examples. And his supporters responded with temperance. It’s hard to make a point if you’re walking on rhetorical eggshells (as Presidents Obama and Hu did today in their dance around press questions about human rights and currency valuation).

At four points in his speech, the few hundred people in the audience interrupted him to clap: when he said that the American people would never forgive their leaders for cutting Social Security or Medicare; when he made his suggestion about the speculation tax; when he said politicians not fighting for jobs should be “taken down” in the next elections; and when he said more people should have pensions. It will be interesting to see how much of this, if any, is echoed in Obama’s State of the Union speech — and if so, in what style it is said.