Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, vowed to be a voice for organized labor in the Senate while addressing the delegates from America's largest federation of labor unions on Sunday.
"Our agenda is America's agenda," was her mantra as she delivered a keynote address to the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, Calif.
That agenda, as laid out by Warren, included calls for a hike in the minimum wage, stricter financial regulation, immigration reform, greater investment in infrastructure, and a more progressive tax code. The Massachusetts senator, who is known for her forthright advocacy of progressive economic causes, also reiterated her opposition to the "stupid" sequester and Social Security cuts.
"We ought to be making smart choices about where to cut and where to invest," she said, stopping just short of a call for more stimulative spending or an expansion of the social safety net.
Warren's speech and the AFL-CIO convention itself both come at a particularly dark time for American organized labor. Wages have stagnated for decades, economic inequality has skyrocketed, and the percentage of American workers in labor unions is gradually inching towards the single digits. Meanwhile, state and federal laws have become more hostile to labor unions, with states like Michigan passing "right-to-work" legislation.
Warren acknowledged some of the forces allied against labor in her speech, including right-wing governors, the Chamber of Commerce, major financial institutions, Big Energy, Big Pharma, and a Supreme Court which she said might soon operate as "a wholly owned subsidiary of big business." Fighting these interests would make for a series of "uphill battles," but it's nothing the labor union hasn't faced down before, she said.
"In every fight to build opportunity in this country, in every fight to level the playing field, in every fight for working families, we have been on the front lines because our agenda is America's agenda," she said, implicitly identifying herself as a member of the movement. "But let's be clear, we have always had to run uphill. We have had to fight for what we've achieved."
Warren's speech was well-received by the assembled union members; after she concluded her remarks, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said, “Ah, if we could only clone her."
The day after Warren laid out a legislative path forward for the labor movement, Trumka hinted at a possible future for grassroots organizing in his Monday speech to the conference.
"Sisters and brothers, it’s time to tear down the barriers, remove the boundaries between workers," he said, an allusion to his support for non-union "alt-labor" organizing groups. "It’s time to stop letting employers and politicians tell us who is a worker and who isn’t, who’s in our movement and who isn’t."
In particular he drew the audience's attention to "the brave workers from the OUR Walmart campaign," and "the three million working men and women of Working America." Trumka recently proposed that the AFL-CIO massively expand the organizing activities of the non-union Working America labor group; the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the union backing Walmart organizing, rejoined the AFL-CIO this summer after having splintered away in 2005.
Freshly minted U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz will both address the convention on Tuesday. President Obama was originally scheduled to make an appearance sometime this week, but cancelled in anticipation of a congressional battle over intervention in Syria.