NEW YORK-"There is a class war going on in this country," AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said during a September 24 panel discussion at the Cooper Union, "and my class is losing. We've got to turn that around."
The panel brought together Trumka, N.Y. Times columnist Bob Herbert, Working America executive director Karen Nussbaum as well as journalist and professor Eric Alterman, all to discuss the question, "Which Way for the Working Class?"
In one form or another, each of the panelists spent their time discussing ways to bring to life the old labor movement adage, "Organize, organize, organize," with the current dire economic conditions as a backdrop.
Herbert referred to his recent trip to suburban Connecticut, during which he visited a food pantry. While there he encountered dozens of people, he said, who, until economic calamity struck them, "thought they were solidly rooted in the middle class."
Trumka was clear on labor's plans for November. "What working people face in this election is a pretty sharp decision about whether we we're going to go forward and try to build an economy that really is different and works for everyone," he said, "or whether we're going to go back to the days of a few years ago, where the rich are doing extremely well, where we're going to get rid of every regulation, where Wall Street runs wild and has control of the agenda."
Trumka said that the his federation was promoting "worker-to-worker" contact, and argued that real, in-person conversations with peers would do more than anything else to bring someone out to vote against the Republicans. The AFL-CIO is planning to contact each of its more than 11 million members an unprecedented 25 times each between now and Election Day.
According to Nussbaum, Working America, an arm of the AFLiCIO that organizes working people not already in unions, has already contacted more than 1 million people since 2009, averaging about 25,000 to 30,000 contacts weekly.
"These people," she said, "are non-partisan and non-ideological." She went on to say that the vast majority of people with whom she and other WA organizers come into contact are simply worried about paying their children's tuition, jobs and other economic issues.
"The right," she said, "has constructed a storyline: if we just get back to the Constitution, if we just get government out of the way" things would improve. The right has also given people enemies, in the form of immigrants, unions, Obama and others on whom to pin blame for the economic woes.
According to Trumka, the country can go one of two ways: towards finding real solutions to the crisis, or to the right and the Tea Party, in which a "tipping point" towards violence would likely be reached. Herbert added that most of the people in the Tea Party movement had legitimate grievances, but were being steered by, as Trumka described it, a leadership that is beholden to corporate interests.
Nussbaum noted that, even though many of the people with whom her organization visited "had Glenn Beck playing through the window," two-thirds ended up joining Working America, a group demonized by Fox News.
Herbert said that he had changed his opinions on organizing recently. Previously he thought it necessary to "organize at the top," that is, to push leaders to enact progressive reforms. Now, he said, he believes it necessary to organize "from the bottom," to create space for friendly leaders and to push less friendly officials to act in workers' interests.
According to Trumka, the mood is getting more favorable in the country, noting that the finance reform law was the first bill to ever get better for working people after it entered the Senate.
During a discussion on strengthening the labor movement, Alterman argued that the terrain is much rougher for organizing now. "The Times has a business section, but no labor section," he said, noting that virtually no one has a labor reporter anymore. He called for the labor movement to have its own newspaper and to begin organizing "labor intellectuals" to re-populate academia with professors who are friendly to, and argue for, the needs of working people.
Despite differing shades of opinion as to how, everyone on stage agreed that more organization was necessary, that the Republicans have to be defeated and that the labor movement has to become stronger and more vocal.
Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, who moderated the discussion, summed this sentiment up, saying that for too long the wrong questions were being asked, where the nation's leaders have been discussing "jobs versus deficit reduction, though really, the only question to be answered is how to create more jobs.
When asked about Working America, and whether it was as useful as traditional trade unions, Nussbaum replied that though the form is variable, "workers' power is the point."
Photo: Dan Margolis