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Can AFL-CIO's Trumka Jump-Start Progressives, Health Reform and Beat 'Tea Baggers'?

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The selection Wednesday of Richard Trumka as president of the AFL-CIO could add a harder progressive edge to the tough drives for health care and economic reform facing progressives and the Obama administration. At the same time, he was joined in the top AFL-CIO leadership ranks by two women: new Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, at 39 the youngest person ever to become an executive officer of the AFL-CIO, and Arlene Holt Baker, the highest ranking African American in the labor movement, who was re-elected Executive Vice President.

What's especially important about Trumka's selection is his strategy to maximize union clout to help salvage and broaden the scope of the American middle class now under assault. He's expressed a willingness to challenge centrist and conservative Democrats who abandon the progressive agenda of the union members who helped elect them, and a new determination to reach out to younger workers -- a third of whom under 35 now live with their parents -- as a way to strengthen both the union movement and the American middle class.

Even before Wednesday's speech, he told the Center for American Progress (as The Washington Post reported):

Trumka laid out the strategy last week in a speech to the Center for American Progress: The federation would do more to reach out to struggling younger workers, and would view its mission more in terms of speaking up for working-class Americans as a whole than merely for its 11 million members.

What got everyone's attention, though, was his threat to Democratic congressmen and others who take labor's support for granted -- including those willing to compromise away key elements of health-care reform for the sake of token bipartisanship.

"More than ever, we need to be a labor movement that stands by our friends, punishes its enemies and challenges those who, well, can't seem to decide which side they're on," he said. "I'm talking about the politicians who always want us to turn out our members to vote for them, but who somehow always seem to forget workers after the votes are counted."

In his speech yesterday, the fiery Trumka didn't pull any punches in pointing to the obstacles facing American workers (including massive unemployment in this so-called "jobless recovery"), and the fresh challenges ahead to strengthen the union movement itself:

Even though the face of the American labor movement has changed, one thing hasn't: It's that the surest, the fastest, most effective way to lift workers and our families into the middle-class is with the strength, that can only, only come with a union contract.

And, sisters and brothers, that fundamental truth hasn't been more critical to the future of this country than it is right now because, today, the American middle-class isn't being squeezed--we are being crushed.

The mirage of prosperity through borrowed money has dissolved--and now we're left with the reality of a hollowed-out economy and a broken financial system.

Even though it wasn't the labor movement that got us into this mess, we are the people who are going to lead America out of it.


And he outlined what a new, more powerful labor movement needed to look like:

What kind of labor movement do we need? A younger labor movement. A greener labor movement. A labor movement that can project its power - to defend workers anywhere in the world. A labor movement that's organizing the unorganized. A labor movement that's winning health care for every family - and, yes, a labor movement that stands by its friends, punishes its enemies, and challenges those who can't decide whose side they're on.

What was especially notable was his full-throated support for the public option on the same day that Sen. Max Baucus unveiled his would-be bipartisan health bill that not only didn't get any Republican support but lacked any meaningful public option or effective subsidies for workers, critics charged.

The New York Times underscored the importance of his stance:

Referring to the president, Mr. Trumka told a packed convention hall in Pittsburgh, "So long as you stand for a public option, we are going to stand with you."

Mr. Trumka did not refer to Mr. Baucus in his speech, but seemed to take aim at the senator and others who oppose -- or would do without -- a public option, an idea that the White House has seemed to vacillate on.

"We've all heard those who've said that we ought to be satisfied with a health care reform plan that doesn't include a public option," Mr. Trumka said. "They seem to think that we ought to settle for whatever bill a few Republicans will sign on to, declare it a victory and go home."

"What they need to learn," he continued, "is that there's a difference between declaring a victory - and actually winning one. And they need to learn something else, too: a plan without a public option may be a lot of things, but it sure as hell isn't reform."

With the power of the AFL-CIO behind him, and SEIU taking a similar tough line on the public option, those are progressive voices that, potentially, can have more of an impact on Congressional action than the angry cadre of right-wingers who've dominated recent Tea Party protests. There are, in fact, two competing visions of America at stake in this fight.

As I pointed out recently in In These Times:

This weekend, tens of thousands angry "Tea Party" protesters (not two million, the figure right-wing bloviators have concocted) denounced the "socialism" of the Obama administration and the President's healthcare plan.

Some, but hardly all, of the protesters--fueled by Fox News disinformation and mobilized in part by corporate front groups--displayed even uglier invective against Obama, calling him a terrorist and likening him to Hitler.

Yet on Sunday, a different vision of America was unveiled: the AFL-CIO started its convention in Pittsburgh with the goal of creating an economy and government that works for everyone. The contrast with the protest in Washington couldn't have been more stark...

Of course, mainstream journalists, political leaders and leading bloggers have differed over how much a role racism has played in driving conservative attacks on the president. But from what I saw when observing the rally on the Capitol's West Lawn (see C-SPAN video for full coverage), something more politically ominous was at work than overt racism amid the sea of yellow flags with the "Don't Tread on Me" symbol of a segmented snake.

Kooky racists can be easily marginalized and dismissed by progressives, but that's not the political danger to a progressive and labor agenda the protesters actually pose.

Instead, it's the not-so-veiled hostility to the notion of virtually any government role in American society (outside of war and policing), and the resistance to taxation and "Big Government."

The Nixonian politics of resentment laid the groundwork for the anti-big government crusade of President Ronald Reagan that still shapes our political debates--while the notion of government-as-villain dominating GOP politics today was fueled decades ago largely by racially-tinged hatred of social welfare programs.

Now, with the ascent of Trumka and his team, a far more inclusive vision of America, and genuine freedom, than that offered by the Tea Party protesters may have a better chance of being achieved. Just take a look at this AFL-CIO video profile on Trumka and the crisis facing American workers:

Compare that with the uglier side of the Tea Party protests last weekend uncovered by Max Blumenthal, author of the new book, Republican Gomorrah: