HOUSTON - "We are declaring here and now that the labor movement is going to focus like a laser beam on raising wages for all American workers, union and non-union," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters here today, after emerging from a session of the labor federation's executive council.
"The fact that Americans need and must be given a raise has the support of the people and many major figures, from the Pope to the president to everyone in between, are heralding and embracing that demand.
"We see overwhelming support for a raise in the minimum wage with state after state raising their minimums and with movements all over the nation calling for a living wage. The call is coming out from fast food workers, from workers' centers, from civil rights groups, women's organizations - everywhere, the demand for an end to poverty wages is resonating and has become a thread that unites us all."
Trumka said the campaign will broadly interpret what it means to give America a raise. It will involve not just salary increases but increases in benefits, sick pay, family leave "and all the other things workers so desperately need. They are fed up with their bosses making more and more and their wages remaining flat," he said.
He said to achieve its goal the labor movement will support the work not just of labor unions but the work of its allies. "The AFL-CIO will do whatever it takes to make resources available to unions and others who need our help in this push for better wages."
He said organizing of unions in unorganized territory, especially the South, would be a key part of the campaign. "Our decision to hold this meeting here in Houston should be taken as a signal that we are serious about penetrating in the South," he declared.
Texas is the nation's second largest state in both area and population and among the nation's least organized. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 4.8 percent or just over 500,000 are union members in the state.
In Texas, the federation is backing a major effort by the American Federation of Teachers to organize the state's educators even though, under Texas law, they don't have the right to bargain collectively.
The AFL-CIO is also backing AFGE's effort to organize thousands of civilian workers on the many military bases in Texas.
Given his emphasis on the South, reporters asked Trumka whether he was discouraged about the recent defeat of the United Auto Workers bid to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
"The workers came within a hair's width of winning despite the terrific odds stacked up against them," he said. "Free market Republicans who don't believe the government has any place telling corporations how they should operate suddenly reversed themselves and did just that. The right wing zealots in high places came in and told workers that if they exercised their right to form a union 'we'll take your job away.' If someone told you reporters that if you wrote what you wanted to write you'd lose your job, you just might decide then to change what you write."
The reporter from the Wall Street Journal asked Trumka how he felt about Volkswagen's statement that it would go ahead with its plan to set up a works council at the Tennessee plant without the union.
"A workers council won't work without a union," Trumka said. "When management puts forward its position on an issue there has to be a force in place that has fidelity to the workers, who might have a different position. You need the union if the workers are to have a real voice."
Trumka was asked whether the labor movement would continue its push for immigration reform, considering successful GOP efforts thus far to block passage of meaningful legislation.
"In spades," he declared, "and not just on the issue of passing comprehensive legislation with a path to citizenship. We need to end the disgraceful deportation system we have going on - it is totally unworthy of any country calling itself a democracy. People get three minutes to testify after they are rounded up. Three minutes before they can be ripped away from their families and deported. That is a broken system. The 11 million undocumented are, as far as I am concerned, full citizens in every way except on paper and should have all the rights of full citizens. As long as I am president of the AFL-CIO this campaign will have top priority, as much as any campaign for the presidency of the United States."
He described how, "recently, one of our union brothers won a battle on an FSLA case (overtime and minimum wage law). Less than 24 hours later he was torn from his family and deported. What's the message there? If you fight for your legal right to a fair wage you get kicked out of the country. This cannot be allowed in any country calling itself a democracy."
On the 2014 midterm elections, he vowed that labor will work to defeat any lawmaker who is against the right of workers to organize and who is unwilling to back policies that create fair wages for Americans.
He said the federation's executive council will take up the 2014 midterm elections in detail during its deliberations this week.
One reporter pressed him on the outlook for the 2016 presidential elections and whether the labor movement would support former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Vice President Joe Biden.
"There are a number of qualified candidates," Trumka said, "but we have to get through 2014 first. I can tell you this much, though, about 2016. We will do whatever we do in unified fashion. We've agreed that none of our affiliates will come out with endorsements until we all sit down and decide what to do. Labor will be united."
Photo: A Chicago protest by fast-food workers seeking decent wages, October 2013. Fight for 15 Facebook page.