WASHINGTON (AP) - The clash between pro-union protesters and Republican leaders in Wisconsin could spark a resurgence of the American labor movement, the head of the nation's largest labor federation said Tuesday.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the effort to strip collective bargaining rights from public workers in Wisconsin and other states has brought a level of excitement to unions that he hasn't seen in years.
"We've never seen the incredible solidarity that we're seeing right now," Trumka told reporters at the federation's annual meeting of union leaders.
Trumka said he hopes to tap into that enthusiasm to help spur union organizing and growth after decades of decline.
He also wants to use the moment to help define unions in a way that could bring renewed support. He pointed to a New York Times-CBS poll that shows Americans oppose efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions by a nearly 2-1 margin.
"People are giving us another look now," he said. "It'll be up to us to keep it going and continue defining ourselves in ways the American public will support."
Whether he meant to or not, Trumka said, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker started a national debate about collective bargaining "that this country sorely needed to have."
It's the kind of attention unions have been craving for years as leaders have tried without success to rekindle the vigor that organized labor enjoyed at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s.
"We've been looking for a spark and the spark found us," said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff and trade expert for the AFL-CIO. "This isn't a fight we looked for, but it is one we can turn to our advantage."
Union members last year represented just 11.9 percent of the American work force, way down from about 25 percent in the 1980s and 35 percent in the middle of the last century.
Energized by the outpouring of tens of thousands of pro-union demonstrators in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, Trumka and other union leaders said they hope to sustain the enthusiasm until next year's elections. Unions have already pledged at least $30 million to fight anti-union legislation in dozens of states. The AFL-CIO has provided support for mobilizing protesters and is looking for other ways to keep the demonstrations going.
"If we maintain the momentum into next year, I think (Walker's) going to have a significant problem," Trumka said.
Walker says his goal is to force government employees to pay more for their pension and health care benefits to help stem a massive budget shortfall. But the idea remains in limbo after Senate Democrats fled the state to prevent a vote.
Conservatives say collective bargaining in public-sector unions contributes to runaway government spending. Critics also claim that public employee unions use their dues to help re-elect lawmakers who, in turn, spend taxpayer money to boost wages and benefits of state workers regardless of fiscal constraints.
Union officials believe public sentiment is on their side.
"People are looking at this and saying this is a struggle I want to be a part of," said United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts. "This is our moment."
AFL-CIO officials claim Walker made a critical mistake in exempting police and firefighters from his plan to curb collective bargaining rights. Trumka noted that police and firefighters have joined Wisconsin protesters in droves to stand with their fellow union workers.
Union leaders spoke at the meetings about "not letting them split us up sector by sector," Trumka said.
Trumka said he was hopeful the support for public sector union could also translate to union workers in the private sector. He sees it as a teachable moment to show Americans how difficult it has become for unions to organize workers at companies where managers often rely on aggressive union-busting tactics.
"It is the law of the land not just to protect but to encourage the process of collective bargaining in this country," he said.