Trumka’s Message to Democrats: The Money’s Not in the Bank Yet

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In a speech at the National Press Club on Friday, AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka drew predictable contrasts between the mega-union’s members and its political enemies
(e.g. firefighters running into burning buildings vs. the Scott Walkers of the world), but he also took aim at Washington’s behavior on the whole—suggesting that Democrats better step up if they don’t want to see their campaign contributions dwindle.

“We’ll spend the summer holding elected leaders in Congress as well as the states accountable on one measure,” Trumka said. “Are you improving or are you degrading life for working families?” According to Opensecrets, only 4% of the AFL-CIO’s political donations went to Republican candidates in the 2010 cycle, but the GOP is currently enjoying 32% of those funds in the run-up to 2012. This could be because donations are just starting to trickle in for the next election, or it could be proof that Trumka is serious about his threat to withhold support from Democrats who don’t back policies in line with AFL-CIO’s priorities. (That being said, much of Trumka’s rhetoric was right in line with Obama’s pro-education, pro-infrastructure, Winning-the-Future messaging.)

“Instead of having a national conversation about putting America back to work … the debate here in Washington is about how fast we can destroy the fabric of our country, about breaking the promises that we made to our parents and our grandparents,” he said, lamenting Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal and the effects it might have on Medicare and Social Security. “Why is our national conversation in such a destructive place?”

What events does Trumka see as destructive? First, of course, there are the fights breaking out between unions and Republican governors in the Midwest over collective-bargaining rights. There are measures like the voter ID bill that just passed the Wisconsin Senate, which Republicans say will stop voter fraud and Democrats insist only serves to dissuade blacks, Latinos and poor whites from voting. Trumka took aim at budget proposals on all levels that scale back things like funding for teachers, he criticized states that are dismissing high-speed rail money and, most ferociously, he attacked tax cuts for the wealthy—saying politicians are making America into a place “of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.”

His comments on tax cuts were intended as an indictment of both parties in Washington, and are an implicit criticism of Obama’s choice to relent in the fight over Bush tax-cut extensions last December. Yes, for the most part, all of Trumka’s policy objections were aimed at Republican measures. But he made it clear that Democrats would suffer if they do not put up enough of a fight against those policies. “Our role is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate,” Trumka said. “It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside.”

The AP notes that including direct donations and other spending, the AFL-CIO supported Democrats with $50 million in the 2010 cycle. So if candidates on both sides are unsavory, where is the union money going to go? Less may head to candidates and more may go straight to fights labor is waging itself, like those that have played out in Ohio and Wisconsin during the last year.  After giving the speech, Trumka said the AFL-CIO is redoing its entire political program. Much of its efforts may go to battleground states, he said, but money will also go to or against any friend or foe, Republican or Democrat, who has or hasn’t taken up their cause.

How serious is Trumka about his threat to pull funding from uncooperative Democrats the moderator asked? “Ask Blanche Lincoln,” he said.