09/05/2012 07:30 pm ET

Richard Trumka Speech At DNC Spotlights Workers' Rights

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Speaking at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered a brief but fiery speech focused on employee rights and collective bargaining, urging listeners to "thank a worker" and to cast a vote for Obama-Biden in November.

"The Democratic platform -- unlike its [Republican] counterpart in Tampa -– makes crystal clear that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party will fight to protect and strengthen this fundamental human right" of collective bargaining, Trumka said.

The most visible face of the American labor movement, Trumka has been a reliable booster for the current White House ever since the AFL-CIO, the largest trade federation in the country, endorsed Obama back in March. Trumka has repeatedly blasted GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney as a "vulture capitalist" and a "happy outsourcer." The AFL-CIO's super PAC, Workers Voice, will be spending $4 million to help mostly Democrats and Obama.

Although his remarks Wednesday were mostly positive and focused on Obama and issues facing the working class, Trumka delivered one barb at the GOP nominee, saying Romney "doesn’t know a thing about hard work or responsibility." Riffing on the "We Built America" slogan adopted by the Republican ticket, Trumka, purportedly speaking on behalf of workers, said, "We are the ones who built America. We are the ones who build it every single day -- because it is our work that connects us all."

Trumka's remarks addressing workers' rights to unionize came with a deep significance -- and perhaps even some irony -- given the site of the convention itself.

With a right-to-work law on its books, North Carolina is the nation's least unionized state, with a paltry 2.9 percent of its workforce belonging to labor unions. The state is one of just a handful where public employees do not enjoy the right to bargain collectively. Many labor activists were upset that Democrats chose to bring their convention to North Carolina to begin with, not wanting to pour money into an area they view as inhospitable to organized labor.

Trumka appeared to glancingly reference the situation during his speech.

"We know that every worker -- here in North Carolina, just like in every state in this country, and every country in the world -- deserves the right to organize and bargain collectively," Trumka declared. He added that every American should have "the essential right ... to a voice, both in the ballot box and in the workplace."

Judging from the platform it ratifed last week, the GOP has hardened its stance against labor unions. The party endorsed right-to-work laws and suggested Congress pass a national one to apply to all states. Right-to-work laws forbid contracts that make union membership a condition of employment, generally serving to weaken the clout of unions. Back in 2008, the Republican platform merely acknowledged the right of states to pass such laws.

In his speech, Trumka also took the time to acknowledge the mostly service-sector workers who are keeping the convention itself running. Convention jobs can be low-paid and stressful, with the workers all but invisible to the thousands of visitors who pour into town. As HuffPost reported last week, many of the workers performing cleanup duties at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., were actually earning less than the minimum wage after deductions for their uniforms.

"Look around this convention, at all the hard-working men and women who make this place run -- the ones keeping us safe, serving our food, driving our buses, and cleaning up after the party’s over," Trumka said. "When we go home tonight, the workers will be mopping and vacuuming, and picking up our trash."



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