How appropriate Michael Moore premiered "Capitalism: A Love Story" in Pittsburgh this week, to coincide with our 26th AFL-CIO Convention. Moore, in an action spearheaded by the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA/NNOC), marched with AFL-CIO delegates to the movie theater, and afterward, encouraged all of us to sponsor it in theaters throughout the country, because, as he says at the end of the film, he needs help to spark the populist revolution.
He’ll have a great partner with the new leadership of the AFL-CIO. Late yesterday, delegates elected Richard Trumka president, Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer, and re-elected Arlene Holt Baker executive vice president. The team is a mini-revolution in itself: It’s the first time the top leadership of the AFL-CIO includes two women, and Shuler, 39, is the youngest-ever unionist ever to hold so high a position in the labor movement.
But the revolution won’t stop there. Trumka, who in recent weeks has previewed the dynamic style he will bring as leader of the labor movement, has long fought against the corporate greed that Moore illustrated in his latest documentary. Trumka is not afraid of a fight: In 1989, when Pittson Coal Co. tried to avoid paying into an industry-wide health and pension fund, Trumka as president of the Mine Workers (UMWA), led one of the most successful strikes in recent American history, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
Trumka combines working-class roots as a Pennsylvania coal miner with the education of a lawyer from Villanova University—and ties it all together with guts, determination and a commitment to social justice that takes on Wall Street greed and waffling Democratic politicians with zeal.
As Trumka said last week at the Center for America Progress:
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. 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.
Our convention in Pittsburgh (Sept. 13-17) coincided with the teabagger protest, offering an illustrative contrast between the values of the 21st century progressive labor movement and the reactionary 18th century wanabees. As Art Levine writes 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.
The AFL-CIO Convention also offered a pointed contrast with the teabaggers in another way: Some 43 percent of national union delegates were women, people of color and LGBT. Such diverse participation didn’t just happen by accident.
In 2005, AFL-CIO delegates passed a resolution requiring affiliated unions send delegates to the 2009 Convention that represented their membership—and we made sure it did. Time and again throughout the convention and in the standing room-only AFL-CIO Diversity Conference that preceded it, union delegates praised the leadership of retiring President John Sweeney for his commitment to ensuring that the union movement’s leaders—from those at the grassroots to the national levels—reflected the workers they represent. And as Holt Baker said more than once, she became the first African American in a top AFL-CIO leadership position because of Sweeney’s commitment to diversity.
Trumka will carry on that mantle. At the AFL-CIO Diversity Conference, he stated:
As a matter of policy, as a matter of principle, we’ll make our movement more inclusive, more welcoming, more like the workers we represent, more like the democratic movement that we are. You have my promise.
The Trumka team also will augment that outreach by focusing on young people, recognizing that we must reach the next generation to carry on the fight for workers’ rights long after we’re gone. Because as Trumka said in his keynote at Netroots Nation last month, where many of you got a first glimpse of the fiery Trumka:
Unions are more critical today than ever in our history. In this uncertain economy, after years of stagnant real earnings, unions are the best hope for this younger generation to gain the standard of living their parents and grandparents enjoy. For 200 years unions have served to counterbalance wealth and privilege in this county and to help raise standards for workers to improve their jobs.
In his acceptance speech yesterday, Trumka outlined the powerful labor movement he intends to shape:
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.
The AFL-CIO Convention ended today. But under our new leadership the momentum—dare we hope, the revolution?—is just beginning.