Expanding union monopoly privileges and the welfare state is a full-time job, especially when it comes to electing political candidates committed to advancing these causes. The AFL-CIO, never late to rise, is getting an early jump for 2016. For the last few months, federation President Richard Trumka has touted freshman Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a Left-populist, as presidential material. The federation has yet to issue a formal endorsement. And the senator has denied plans to run. Yet she could be persuaded to change her plans. The push for Warren is part of a larger effort to identify “pro-worker” candidates who support dramatic hikes in the minimum wage. “That’s the stick we’ll use to measure every candidate,” Trumka said at an AFL-CIO executive board meeting in Atlanta in late February.
For several decades, unions have been the prime engine of the Democratic Party, most of all, in national elections. Endorsements by organized labor can mobilize support for candidates, especially in heavily unionized states, in ways that endorsements from other interest groups can’t. Unions are experienced in the trenches of power politics. They have networking, strategizing and fundraising skills that often spell the difference between victory and defeat in close races. The AFL-CIO, with 56 affiliated unions representing 12.5 million workers, provides central direction to union activists who work with party organizations and candidates. It may account for a small fraction of total union spending, but its influence is enormous. And the federation-sponsored Workers’ Voice Super PAC, formed in the spring of 2012, is now a fundraising force.
Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president since September 2009, is committed to achieving what he sees as a fair economy – that is, an economy in which unions are able to maximize their bargaining position and in which government takes the lead in redistributing income, wealth and profit to the benefit of the ostensibly beleaguered middle and working classes. Democrats, far more than Republicans, fit the bill here. Back in March 2012, following a unanimous endorsement in Orlando by the AFL-CIO executive council of President Obama for re-election, Trumka stated: “We will continue to have disagreements with him (Obama). But we’ve never doubted…he’s a friend of working people and he’s the best out there.” Trumka remains committed to replacing elected officials whom he sees as in the pockets of big business. “The economy is nothing but a set of rules that make the winners and losers,” Trumka remarked at the Atlanta meeting. “Those rules are made by the people we elect. We should elect people who change the rules.”
Trumka sees the rules as rigged against regular working people. Politics, for him and for other prominent labor leaders, is a means through which greedy business executives and their beneficiaries – lately known as the “1 percent” – get their way. Counteracting capitalism gone wild requires in-your-face radicalism. Toward this end, the AFL-CIO is planning to hold “wage summits” in four early caucus/primary states: Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The federation advocates a sharp boost in the federal minimum wage, preferably to at least $15 an hour. “Falling real wages is at the heart of what is wrong with America today – economically, politically and morally,” Trumka wrote in an opinion piece two years ago. “We have arrived at a moment when raising wages must be more than a one-time policy prescription. Raising wages must be a framework through which to build a new economic model that is centered on the value of work.” Those words could have been written yesterday.
Quite aside from extensive empirical evidence that mandated wage hikes raise unemployment among entry-level workers, there is the added irony that the AFL-CIO since 2000 has promoted mass immigration/amnesty. National Legal and Policy Center has noted that an explosive influx of unskilled, semi-literate workers has suppressed wages, especially if these workers are not here legally. Yet the federation has no problem with this, so long as it comes with assurances of an easy “path” to legal residence and ultimately citizenship. The AFL-CIO played a key role in drafting the “Gang of Eight” Senate immigration bill, unveiled in April 2013, which would have wound up doubling or even tripling annual U.S. immigration levels. The Senate passed the bill; the House did not. President Obama, flouting constitutional principle and common sense, issued an executive amnesty this past November 20 authorizing the granting of work permits to as many as 5 million undocumented (i.e., illegal) immigrants, thus shielding them from deportation and inviting family members from back home to join them here.
Trumka objects only to the slowness of the integration of illegal immigrants into the labor force, not to their presence per se. Two weeks ago in Atlanta, he said: “Employers use (flooding the market with cheap labor) to lower wages for everyone.” Would it not make sense, then, to increase restrictions on immigration? Well…no. Legalizing the status of illegal workers, he remarked, “not only is the morally right thing to do, it’s the economically right thing to do.” U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, Southern District of Texas, thankfully has other ideas. Last month he blocked the executive order, citing the Obama administration’s lack of enforcement of the U.S.-Mexican border and its lack of compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act.
So which Democratic Party candidate is best able to advance Richard Trumka’s kind of economic populism? Thus far, the battle is shaping up to be between two women: Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. Of former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State Clinton, he had this to say at a reporters’ breakfast in August 2014: “I think that Hillary did an excellent job as secretary of state. Would I say she is the favorite now? Yes. But I think anytime anybody believes there is going to be a coronation that is dangerous for the candidate.” Somehow this compliment comes across as tentative, even back-handed. Contrast these words with those he spoke of Harvard law professor-turned-Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., at a Wage Summit in Washington, D.C. this past January 7, which the senator also attended. Calling her an “inspiration,” he said:
Her vision of a Raising Wages America embodies our highest ideals. Senator Warren is that rare political leader; she shares our values; she really connects with us; she is a genius when it comes to policy; and she is tough as nails when it comes to politics. Senator Warren, thank you. You have always been and will always be a remarkable, remarkable champion of working people.
Now that sounds like an endorsement. And it’s not out of the question that a formal announcement for Warren could come this year. Calling 2015 “pivotal,” Trumka declared at the Wage Summit: “It (2015) would be the year that politicians decided to stand up strong, or to retreat, afraid of responsibility. To be very, very clear about what we need, or to be murky, saying a little bit of this, a little of that, and a lot of ‘maybe, kind of, sort of.’” Leftist blogger-CNN contributor Sally Kohn interprets such words this way: “Trumka’s comments appear to reflect the yearning of so many Americans, who long not just for more leaders like Elizabeth Warren specifically, but in general, leaders who stand up for working people and not just for powerful monied interests.” While Trumka wants to avoid making an endorsement until all AFL-CIO leaders are on the same page, he also wants action. And that means vetting all candidates quickly, possibly with an endorsement in 2015.
Elizabeth Warren, a specialist in bankruptcy law at Harvard who was elected U.S. senator from Massachusetts in November 2012, is anti-business in ways that Hillary Clinton isn’t. I took note of Warren’s radicalism back in May 2011, when she served as acting director of the then-new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She didn’t get the permanent job – that went to former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray – but she may well be on her way to something bigger. Thus far, she explicitly has ruled out a run for the presidency in 2016. But she might be swept into the fray. The AFL-CIO can be very persuasive, especially when Richard Trumka speaks.