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Sarah Palin's Complicated Relationship with the Labor Movement

Richard Trumka gave a scathing speech to the Alaska AFL-CIO Thursday, lambasting Sarah Palin for a good chunk of it.

Palin has a complicated relationship with the labor movement--her husband, Todd, was employed in a union job until last year, and the former governor often takes issue with union "bosses" in the political realm but praises union workers--and those complications were further fleshed out in her response to Trumka, posted Thursday afternoon on her Facebook page.

She leads off with an appeal to union "brothers and sisters"--the language union people like to use:

Two years ago almost to the day, I was thrilled to meet with union members at the Alaska AFL-CIO Convention in Anchorage to sign important job-creation legislation related to the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act. As a former card-carrying IBEW sister married to a proud former IBEW and later USW member, it was a great moment for all of us. Our Alaska union brothers and sisters helped build our state! Many of them risked their lives to complete our infrastructure, including the Trans-Alaska Pipeline that stretches over treacherous mountain ranges from the North Slope oil fields to Valdez. By signing that job-creation bill surrounded by union members, I was paying tribute to them and acknowledging that they would be valued partners in the construction of Alaska's long awaited natural gas pipeline. I was honored that day to receive a standing ovation from them for signing a bill that provided a Project Labor Agreement to bring good jobs to these good men and women.

And after attacking Tumka as a "career union boss who's spent most of his life in DC"--Trumka, a former mine worker, rose quickly through the ranks of the United Mine Workers Association, first heading its safety committee and then serving on its international board--Palin goes on to praise the historical project of the labor movement while attacking present-day union leaders as corrupt:

In the past there were many great union leaders who courageously defended the rights of workers. Unions were founded for all the right reasons! They were to give working men and women the clout to negotiate fairly with their employers and to fight for decent pay and working conditions. The unions of old would often end up fighting big government on behalf of the little guy. Today's unions seem to be big government's most enthusiastic supporters. It's turned into some nonsense when union bosses back the government takeover of the car industry, and the mortgage industry, and the entire health care sector. And with the help of big government they aim to push through card check legislation that some characterize as being unfair to workers, and even un-American, because of its insistence on stripping workers of their right to privacy with a secret ballot. And that's not just me voicing concern over card check - ask current union members how comfortable they are with what some of their leaders are saying about the legislation.
To my hardworking, patriotic brothers and sisters in the labor movement: you don't have to put up with the scare tactics and the big government agenda of the union bosses. There is a different home for you: the commonsense conservative movement. It cares about the same things you and I care about: a government that doesn't spend beyond its means, an economy focused on creating good jobs with good wages, and a leadership that is proud of America's achievements and doesn't go around apologizing to everyone for who we are.

Palin's relationship with the labor movement is clearly more complex than support/oppose. At its core, her argument is this: union leaders in DC pursue an agenda disconnected from what union workers actually want.

Members of the labor hierarchy in DC will tell you that unions pursue a Democratic agenda because it benefits workers. The government takeover of the auto industry was conducted, in large part, to save the jobs, pensions, and health care plans of auto workers; the stimulus was undertaken to save working-class Americans from slipping into poverty; health care has been one of labor's biggest priorities at the negotiating table for years, because it costs so much, and President Obama's reforms will make it more affordable for many; the mortgage plan was designed to keep working-class people in their homes.

There is power in Palin's argument. A lot of working-class people, union members included, are socially conservative and probably oppose part, or a lot, of Obama's agenda. Trumka made a name for himself, before he became president of the AFL-CIO, by giving a string of firebrand speeches in 2008 about how union members shouldn't oppose Obama because he's black.

Just as the labor movement has tried to win over non-union working-class Americans--Working America, the AFL-CIO's community affiliate, has signed up 3 million members who think the AFL-CIO's basic political agenda is in their best interest--Palin, in her response to Trumka, seeks to peel off union members from labor's political movement by telling them that labor's agenda doesn't fit with their conservative gut leanings.

Palin's spat with Trumka is part of a broader story in working-class politics that's gone on for years: voters torn between basic conservative leanings and liberal tax and spending policies that, on their faces, quite obviously benefit lower income brackets. "White, working-class voters" were touted as the most important bloc of the 2008 elections, and the war over them is still raging.