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Workers need a voice in the presidential race

With new presidential contenders entering the contest every few days, there's no question that the marathon race to the White House has started. What's less clear is whether there will be a strong candidate to fight for the bread-and-butter issues of concern to working families.

As the field of candidates takes shape, what the nation needs most is a labor candidate to throw a hat into the ring. Such a candidate would be good for workers, the Democratic Party, the union movement and America.

The perfect labor candidate is Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO secretary treasurer and former president of the United Mine Workers. Trumka, 57, is a third-generation coal miner from southwestern Pennsylvania. He is also a passionate, plainspoken and articulate speaker, as I witnessed recently when he delivered a speech on the need for universal health care and greater pension security.

A Trumka candidacy would benefit workers by keeping public attention on their daily struggles. The threat of job offshoring, for example, hasn't disappeared; it has just fallen from the headlines. The same is true for retirement insecurity, worker safety and the jobs impact of restructuring by carmakers and other large employers.

Trumka's entry into the contest would energize the race for the Democratic nomination. It's hard to imagine large numbers of Americans tuning in for debates featuring highly programmed candidates like Sen. Hillary Clinton. Trumka's entry would first turn heads because of the novelty of such a move. Then more heads would turn because of his ability to forcefully challenge the conventional wisdom on issues like health care.

By making the entire field of candidates address workers' problems, Trumka would have a real impact on the Democratic Party's discussion of its values and goals. He could also press other candidates to spell out the details of their plans, and draw attention to the need to implement and enforce workplace standards already on the books.

At the same time, Trumka's candidacy would revitalize the labor movement, providing the perfect vehicle for labor's voice to be heard across the country. The public would quickly learn that modern unions work with employers to boost production, improve competitiveness and contain health care costs. Non-union workers would soon see that organized labor supports policies that promote income security and employment opportunities for everyone.

In response to a recent question about his interest in becoming president of the AFL-CIO, Trumka joked that he had his eyes on another presidency. Later, I suggested that he had much to contribute by taking the matter of the White House seriously. Trumka admitted only that he'd enjoy the fray, but a twinkle in his eye revealed a fervor that convinced me he would be just right for the job.

Charles J. Whalen, of Geneva, edits Perspectives on Work, published by the Labor and Employment Relations Association.

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