Union chief accuses high court of ‘war on democracy’

Richard Trumka, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations president.
Richard Trumka, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations president.

LOS ANGELES — In a fiery speech Monday, the leader of the nation’s largest labor federation took aim at top American corporations and the U.S. Supreme Court, which he accused of waging a “war on democracy.”

Speaking to thousands of union members at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, President Richard Trumka denounced the “powerful forces in America today who want our country to be run by and for the rich.”

He singled out Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, saying “their whole business model is about keeping the people who work for them poor,” as well as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whom he called an “apostle of greed” for his efforts to limit collective bargaining by public employee unions.

Mr. Trumka’s scorching remarks came on the second day of a convention that he has sought to portray as a crucial turning point for a shrinking labor movement that has seen membership fall to just 11 percent of American workers, down from 35 percent in the 1950s.

Insisting that the union “has got to change” and broaden its base, Mr. Trumka has pushed new rules that would extend membership to workers who are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and to allow the union to form alliances with progressive groups including the NAACP and the Sierra Club. Those changes were approved Monday.

Mr. Trumka said it is necessary for like-minded groups to come together in the face of growing corporate influence in politics. He denounced the Supreme Court, which in 2010 handed down a decision scorned by the left that allowed unlimited political spending by corporations.

His criticism came on the heels of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s similar attacks on the nation’s top judicial body. Speaking to the convention Sunday, Ms. Warren accused the court of siding too often with corporate interests, and warned that it is on a path to becoming “a wholly owned subsidiary of big business.”

The convention will continue through Wednesday, including workshops on organizing techniques used by unions in other countries and a speech from Tom Perez, who was sworn in Sept. 4 as U.S. labor secretary.