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Former UAW organizer will be new Michigan AFL-CIO president

For the first time in 12 years, there is a new leader at the helm of Michigan’s AFL-CIO union as outgoing President Mark Gaffney is replaced by Karla Swift.

Gaffney announced last month he would not seek the presidency of the union again, noting that the group needed a more aggressive leadership willing to confront the politics in Lansing, where a series of proposals and legislative actions have been taken the labor movements calls clearly anti-union.

Gaffney’s exit opened the door for Swift, a former UAW organizer, to be elevated to the group’s leadership post. The Detroit Free Press reports she had this to say during her inaugural speech to delegates of the union gathered in Detroit Monday:

“Michigan’s jobs crisis is our No. 1 priority and it should be the top priority in Lansing,” Swift told delegates at the convention. “We must protect the welfare and integrity of the middle class, fiercely defending works’ rights to participate in collective bargaining.”

In an interview with the Michigan Messenger, Swift built on that message.

“We are going to hold politicians accountable,” she said. “Any time they spend working on anything other than creating jobs is time lost and we don’t have much time at all.”

Swift has been involved in the UAW as well as the union-driven grassroots organization We The People. She said the current legislature, which has controlling GOP majorities in both chambers, is focused on “divisive politics which don’t do anything to create jobs — like taxing seniors pensions and cutting education.”

To address the issues, which have led to massive protests at the Capitol in the last year, Swift says the AFL-CIO will continue to engage in similar actions. She also said the group will also work on building coalitions in various legislative districts in order to target those seats in 2012.

“We are working hard to build coalitions with other communities that are stuggling along with labor — environmental groups, education, students,” she said. “We are going to build action teams around the state in key areas. We’re really focusing in on changing the make up of the House in 2012.”

Democrats lost control of the House a year ago when a Republican tide swept Gov. Rick Snyder and dozens of other Republicans into office across the state. The Republicans swept took the House, consolidated a super majority in the Senate, and swept all the statewide officies including Attorney General, Secretary of State and two seats on the Michigan Supreme Court.

“When [legislators] hear something from constituents enough they realize they are doing something that is not in the best interest of their community,” said Swift. “We’re not waiting until 2012, we are building and taking action. Real actions that are on the streets and in the communities where legislators’ constuents are.”

Of particular concern, Swift said, is the move by the GOP majorities to push “Right to Work” legislation through.

“It’s better named right to work for less because it doesn’t really have anything to do with workers or creating jobs. It’s about politicians and the corporate special interests making a power grab,” she said. “It doesn’t raise wages, in fact it lowers wages by about $1500 a year. Seven out of 10 states with the highest unemployment rates are right to work states… That is a perfect example of things Lansing politicians are doing that are wasting time. Squandering time.”

She also criticized Rep. Mike Shirkey (R-Clarke Lake), who plans to introduce Right to Work legislation. Michigan Messenger reported last month that while Shirkey is pushing the legislation, his own business, Orbitforms — which is a non-union shop — is the beneficiary of generous tax breaks. In addition, Shirkey had promised to create 12 new jobs with the generous tax breaks, but in fact ended up laying off nine people. He has said since that he has hired 14 people since, still short of the original promise of 12 new jobs and the nine jobs lost to lay offs.

“That’s a perfect example of why this is about politics plain and simple,” Swift said. “It’s really about corporate special interests and politicians teaming up — demonstrating the kind of greed that is going on here.”

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