DETROIT, Michigan – Embattled US union leaders met here Thursday and cast themselves as the defenders of the middle class, vowing to fight Republican attacks on teachers and government workers.
“There’s a new generation of ideologues — I don’t even want to call them Republicans — out there that want to strip us of our voices,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten.
“Our job is to take this moment and make an opportunity to re-energize the labor movement.”
Republicans pushing to cut taxes, slash government services and undermine unions are pursuing an agenda that will benefit the rich and undermine the middle class, Weingarten said.
While many of these moves have proven unpopular with voters, Weingarten said Republicans are hoping the memory of current battles will fade by the time voters head to the polls in November 2012.
Unions cannot afford to let that happen, she told a conference organized in Detroit by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.
Seizing on major gains in November’s mid-term elections and eyeing next year’s presidential race, Republicans in 37 states are pushing legislation to restrict bargaining rights and the unions’ ability to collect dues.
The move is aimed at knocking down the most effective Republican opponents in regions critical to President Barack Obama’s re-election, said Donna Brazile, a Democratic political consultant and strategist.
And the demonizing rhetoric aimed at teachers and public sector workers who’ve been called “greedy” and “lazy” is aimed at distracting voters from the real source of budgetary constraints, she told the conference.
“They are blaming the public sector unions instead of huge tax cuts for the rich and unbridled financial manipulation for the mess we’re in,” Brazile said.
“Meanwhile, they’re sitting back and not doing anything to create jobs.”
Wisconsin — a key battleground in presidential elections — was the first state to pass sweeping legislation to strip public sector workers of most collective bargaining rights in a controversial move which sparked weeks of mass protests.
A similar law is making its way through the Republican-dominated legislature in the battleground state of Ohio while Republicans in Indiana are pushing a law to undermine private sector unions.
The political battle was high on the agenda of union leaders and activists gathered for the United Auto Workers Union’s bargaining conference, which comes ahead of contract talks with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler and normally focuses on bread-butter issues such as wages and benefits.
“We’re under attack like we’ve never been under attack before,” UAW president Bob King told members. “We have to build a people power movement.”
King urged members to fight to protect workers and consumers from a Republican agenda which he said aims to loosen regulation of industries and undermine wages and job security.
He said the UAW is reaching out to faith groups, environmentalist, civil rights and immigration rights organizations to help resist the budget cuts and anti-union legislation.
It also encouraged members to continue to march in the mass protests.
Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of Service Employees International Union, told the UAW conference there are grounds for optimism.
“We are living in a very difficult economic and political environment,” he said. “But I’ve seen first hand the power of union solidarity.”
Hispanic voters saved Democratic senate seats in California, Colorado, Nevada and Washington in November’s mid-term election, Medina said, and getting more Hispanics out to the polls next year could have a powerful effect.
There are 22 million Hispanics eligible to vote in the United States and raising the participation rate to 60 percent would bring three million primarily Democratic voters to the polls, Medina said.
Veteran activist and union delegate Lisa Fithian also expressed optimism.
“We have a chance to turn this around,” she said. “There’s a vibrant movement growing.”