Corporate policies are driving millions of workers out of good-paying jobs, stripping them of health care and killing pension plans in a strategy that is "just suicidal" for the economy, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said Wednesday.
Sweeney outlined a state-by-state effort that he said was aimed at allowing organized labor "to break free from the gridlock of Washington" and fight for worker benefits such as stronger health care plans and a higher minimum wage.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney listens to questions from union members during a rally in Philadelphia, Dec. 6, 2005. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)
"Wounded workers aren't the only casualties of the corporate job-killing strategy," Sweeney said. "It is also a self-destructive strategy because it leaves businesses with consumers who don't have enough money to spend or save. It leaves government with more demand for public services and subsidies and fewer taxpayers to pay for them."
Sweeney, in a speech to the National Press Club on the state of labor in America, pointed to numerous economic developments that suggest the middle class is getting into increasing trouble an increasing poverty rate, health care costs being shifted to workers and jobs moving overseas.
"We have to stop outsourcing," Sweeney said. "If we don't stop it, we're going to see the elimination of the middle class."
White House officials dismissed his criticism, pointing to overall economic growth and gains in jobs in recent months.
"The president is viewing the economy realistically that there is very strong job growth, but he will not be satisfied until every American looking for work can find work," said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, who said economic growth came about despite late-summer hurricanes and high gas prices this fall. "The overwhelming evidence is that this economy is very strong and that's because of the president's economic program," he said.
The federation's push to improve working conditions comes at a difficult time for organized labor.
The AFL-CIO is a federation of more than 50 unions representing close to 9 million workers around the country, but about a half-dozen unions have bolted the organization to spend more money on recruiting new members. Only about 8 percent of workers in private industry are currently union members.
"I firmly believe the more united and solid the labor movement is, the more successful it will be," Sweeney said of the split. "We addressed about 90 percent of their issues. We're doing everything we can to work together."
Sweeney has said he does not consider the administration and the Republican-controlled Congress as supportive of policies favoring ordinary workers. The AFL-CIO and affiliated groups will focus more attention on a state-by-state battle to improve worker pay and benefits, he said. And he said he sees evidence there will be Democratic gains in Congress in 2006.
The federation will work with student activists and other groups to put together campaigns in 26 states to increase the minimum wage in those states. Labor unions announced earlier this month that they would pursue legislation in 31 states this year to require large employers, including Wal-Mart, to spend more on health care benefits or contribute to Medicaid.
Organized labor successfully pushed for a new Maryland law designed to pressure the Wal-Mart chain into spending more money on health insurance for its employees. Wal-Mart is considering a challenge to the legislation, Sweeney said, adding:
"You saw the first crisp punch in that fight when we overrode Governor (Robert) Ehrlich's veto of our ... health care legislation in Maryland."
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