WASHINGTON - "People are giving the labor movement another look now," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at a press conference here March 1.
He also told reporters, during a break in the federation's executive council meeting, that the mass demonstrations in response to right-wing attacks on collective bargaining rights have energized the base in unions "in a way unseen in decades."
Trumka said the momentum needs to be continued "for years."
He made his remarks only a day after new polls show majority support across the country for the public workers fighting off attacks on their collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and elsewhere. "They're saying, ‘We support the right to collectively bargain and the right to maintain the middle class," Trumka noted. "But it'll be up to us (the labor movement) to keep it going and to define ourselves."
Several reporters took note of the duration of the protests, noting that they have continued for more than two weeks in Wisconsin and asked Trumka how long he expected them to continue.
"This fight won't end until we say it ends - at least straight through 2012 and the next election," he said.
The council spent almost the entire first day of its two-day meeting discussing the monumental protests in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio - all states where radical right-wing governors have mounted attacks on union rights. Local union leaders from Wisconsin were among those who provided briefings for executive council members.
Marlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters, discussed the support his members receive daily as they participate in the protests, including the sleep-ins at the Capitol.
He described how firefighters and students set up trash brigades to keep the occupied Capitol clean and how, every time the Fire Fighters' bagpipe band and honor guard enters the Capitol, they are greeted with thunderous applause and cheers.
Christine Kistner, vice president of Wisconsin's AFSCME Council 40, marveled at how thousands of non-union members and hundreds of formerly uninvolved union members have rallied to the cause. "It's a learning experience," she said. "Now people see how the governor can affect their own lives. We have union members who voted for Walker and now they tell us, ‘we voted for him, but not for this.'"
Mitchell also discussed the issue of firefighters having voted for the Republican Walker. "I thought we might have some push back from our members, since 39 percent of them voted for Walker in his narrow win last Nov. 3," Mitchell said. "But our members are more united than ever. Many say an attack on the union is an attack on the middle class."
Walker never made mention, during his campaign for the governorship, of any intention to kill collective bargaining rights.
Mitchell also told the executive council members about one exception to the high level of unity in the Wisconsin labor movement: Milwaukee city police and firefighters, who are not part of their two respective state associations, have thus far not officially backed the protests.
Trumka said the labor movement intends to continue and intensify its fightback. He said unions will "continue to talk to everybody about the importance of collective bargaining."
He noted that, in some ways, the right-wing attacks on collective bargaining rights help clarify for union members what they need to do in coming elections. "If a state lawmaker voted to silence our members, we won't have to talk to our members about whom to vote for or against," Trumka said. "They'll know."