Absent radical labor law reform the nation could be in trouble
Bill Samuel | AFL-CIO

WASHINGTON—Unions and labor activists have been warning that unless labor law is updated corporations will take advantage of the current law and its loopholes to set back progress on countless issues important to Americans. Current labor law, for example, allows bosses to drag their feet for years, at times, in negotiations with workers.

Bill Samuel says, that when it comes to a top issue such as comprehensive pro-worker labor law reform, you have to take the long view about accomplishing it.

Make that the very long view, as in decades.

Which is what Samuel has done as the AFL-CIO Government Affairs Director for almost 24 years. He’ll retire soon. Before joining the federation, Samuel was the Mine Workers’ Legislative Director and held top positions with the Government Employees and the Treasury Employees, broken only by a stint as a key Labor Department official and a year as a top labor advisor to then-Vice President Al Gore.

The long view is a particularly apt description of the struggle to enact comprehensive labor law reform, first with the Employee Free Choice Act 15 years ago, and now with the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, named by the late AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who hired Samuel for the Mine Workers post and then supported Samuel as AFL-CIO’s legislative chief.

“You have to be persistent,” Samuel said in an exclusive interview with People’s World. “Like labor law reform—I’ve spent decades fighting for it, so that we, as workers and as unions, will be able to confront these huge corporations with their battalions of lawyers.”

For Samuel, the campaign for reform began with AFGE and has continued ever since. But due to corporate lies about unions, plus campaign clout and several recalcitrant Democratic senators—Virginian Mark Warner and both Arkansas senators under President Bill Clinton, and Arizonan Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginian Joe Manchin now—comprehensive workers’ rights still aren’t law. Manchin says he supports the PRO Act but refuses to kill the filibuster, which doomed it.

Coming close to labor law reform

Workers and their allies actually came close to winning the first workers’ rights fight, Samuel recalls. The Democratic-run House had passed the Employee Free Choice Act twice in three years, in 2007 and 2009. “And for a short time, we had a filibuster-proof Senate majority” of 60 votes.

“We had 60 senators and a number of union presidents went to Obama and said ‘Let’s make EFCA a priority.’ But he was thinking ‘Let’s do health reform first and then we’ll have the wind at our backs and then we can take up labor law reform.’”

It was not to be. Senate Labor Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., labor’s lion in those years, and a master deal-maker, too, died. So did Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va. The majority was gone. Then congressional majorities were gone in the corporate-financed Tea Party backlash against the ACA that produced the 2010 off-year Republican sweep. Elections have consequences,

“By that time, we could no longer get it,” Samuel muses about EFCA. “I regret not pushing it harder.”

“It’s a disappointment, but I’m realistic about it,” Samuel says of that failure and the inability to get a Senate floor vote on the PRO Act. “All the stars have to line up right to make major changes.”

As he retires from his position as the AFL-CIO’s constant voice on Capitol Hill, and before the executive branch, too, Samuel can reflect on a career that spans triumphs and disappointments—including the House wins and the unlucky loss with EFCA—and working with lawmakers in a dozen Congresses and three AFL-CIO presidents. His tenure covers U.S. administrations in this century.

Recent triumphs shine

What elates Samuel the most are the recent achievements, during Democratic President Joe Biden’s first two years in office and despite an evenly split Senate and a small margin in the Democratic-run House.

Those triumphs include the successful rescue of financially troubled multi-employer pension plans without penalizing their current beneficiaries. That measure, the Butch Lewis Act, which Samuel, other union legislative reps, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, crafted, “helped a lot of people in a real way,” he says.

“When Wall Street gambled and lost, they got a bailout,” Brown said about two years ago. “And when big corporations came to Washington looking for tax cuts, they got a handout. But when working people’s pensions needed saving, that’s where my Republican colleagues drew the line.”

The Butch Lewis Act also overrode the Republican “rescue” plan, enacted in the dead of night at the end of the GOP-run Congress in 2014. The Republicans forced multi-employer pension plan boards to cut current retirees’ and dependents’ pensions by 40% or more.

Other big wins Samuel recalls with pleasure include the Affordable Care Act in Democratic President Barack Obama’s first two years, and the Investment, Jobs and Infrastructure Act, along with other pro-worker measures of Democratic President Joe Biden’s first two years. When the Republicans took over, they tried to kill the ACA, taking 70 repeal votes in both Houses combined, and losing all.

That in turn, leads Samuel to compare the three Democratic presidents during his long career, and he says there’s no question who’s best among them for workers: Biden.

“Biden feels it”—being pro-worker—“in his gut,” Samuel says, and has proven it with his legislative record, which the federation strongly campaigned for. “Obama was a little more theoretical” about supporting workers “and also more cautious” than Biden, who was his vice president, “And for the last six years” in the White House, “he was dealing with a GOP-run Congress.

“Bill Clinton was a ‘new Democrat,’ and he wasn’t unfriendly, but labor wasn’t a priority.”

Especially on trade. Clinton pushed through the jobs-destroying pro-corporate “free trade” treaty, NAFTA. Workers remembered, other union leaders told PAI, especially when Hillary Clinton ran for president eight years ago. Workers, remembering Bill’s record, didn’t trust her on trade. Trump, blasting NAFTA, got half of union members’ votes in key Great Lakes swing states that fall.

And when Obama tried to push the NAFTA-like Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress, House Democrats, with labor lobbying, shelved it—and fast-track for trade pacts, too, Samuel notes. That win shows the Democrats now adopt labor’s skepticism of “free trade.”

By contrast, the Republican pension scheme symbolized Samuels’ years battling for workers, and sometimes losing, during GOP administrations. And when Donald Trump entered the White House seven years ago “we were back on the defensive,” he says. The one area the two parties agree upon, now, is skepticism of corporate-controlled trade treaties.

Political change—not for the better

Meanwhile, over Samuel’s career, the two political parties have changed—and not for the better.

Samuels recalls that when he first came to D.C. to work for workers’ interests, the House Republicans had their own Labor Caucus. Dozens, notably from the Northeast and Midwest, “were not afraid to be pro-labor.” They were balanced by “a pretty big group of Southern Democrats who were not friendly.”

The Southerners Samuel encountered early in this century were the political successors to New Deal-era segregationists who deleted farmworkers and domestic workers from the basic federal minimum wage and overtime pay law, because of their race.

The pro-worker Republicans migrated Democratic and the Southern segregationists are Republicans. And lawmakers have vastly less experience, forcing Samuel and his colleagues among labor’s legislative reps “to do a lot more educating.”

“Now we have a Democratic Party that is much more in agreement with labor’s agenda and labor’s interests,” Samuel says.

Ideological separation along the lines Samuel describes is not new. FDR favored it, in private talks with progressive Republican Wendell Willkie, his 1940 foe, in 1944. Then Willkie died, mid-year.

The Republican-Democratic chasm also appears in the federation’s tallies of lawmakers’ key votes for or against workers. Now, Democrats who score below 80% are rare, Samuel notes. Republicans rarely score above 40%. Progressive Republicans used to finish ahead of the Southerners.

“The chance of getting anything significant through is complicated” by ideology, Samuel says. The inconsequential record, other than money bills, of the currently split Congress, backs that up.

Looking forward to the election

Even though he’s retiring from the federation post, Samuel’s still looking forward, to this fall’s election. He views it optimistically and as workers’ and unions’ big opportunity. He bases the optimism on two factors: National overwhelming support for workers and unions, shown in opinion polls, and that the Republicans again “are putting up some extreme right-wing faces,” especially in Senate races.

One big caveat: The wars in Ukraine and between Israel and Hamas, with two million Gazans as victims in the carnage. Samuel’s not asked to lobby on foreign issues. But he’s concerned about Biden’s support of Israel’s right-wing government with arms. It alienates younger progressive Democrats. The AFL-CIO has called for a ceasefire in that war but has been silent on arms sales.

“There are parts of the Democratic base that need convincing” to vote for Biden, Samuel admits, without getting specific. Besides the younger progressives upset about the wars, the federation has faced massive defections at the polls from white male blue-collar factory workers.

If workers and their allies re-elect Biden, “return to the majority” in both houses of Congress, get rid of the filibuster now that Sens. Manchin and Sinema are retiring, workers and their allies will be able to enact the PRO Act, strengthen the Voting Rights Act, and restore reproductive rights nationwide.

The filibuster threat stopped the first two of those measures and the Republican-dominated Supreme Court destroyed the third.

But if that electoral combination doesn’t occur, “my successor,” Jody Calemine, a former general counsel and staff director for the Communications Workers, “will face the same obstacles I did.”

The AFL-CIO has changed

The AFL-CIO has changed, too, and will change anew, says Samuel discussing the federation’s three presidents he’s worked for: John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Liz Shuler.

There have been “differences of opinion” within the closed-door sessions of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, too, Samuel says. But they’re not ideological. “There have been a few times when we’ve had to step back” on an issue. “It’s more a case of different priorities. We always worked through them.”

“Sweeney transformed the AFL-CIO” into concentrating more on the grass-roots and less on lobbying in D.C., its prime emphasis under predecessors George Meany and Lane Kirkland. “It hadn’t changed much in 40 years” since the American Federation of Labor merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, once the more militant of the nation’s two labor federations.

“Rich was powerful, compelling, and visionary” in guiding the federation through Republican-generated turbulence. He was no stranger to that, having been president of the Mine Workers. “There, we produced pensions” run by the federal government “for 140,000 retired miners” and their survivors. “Nobody but Rich thought we could do that.”

Shuler, the federation’s Secretary-Treasurer when Trumka unexpectedly died, first became acting president until the Executive Council elected her to finish his term. Later, the full AFL-CIO convention followed suit, unanimously. As the federation’s first-ever woman president, Shuler, an Electrical Worker “brought in young people, women and people of color” to labor’s higher ranks and actively encouraged them to move upwards. Her Secretary-Treasurer, Steelworker Fred Redmond, is the first African-American in the federation’s #2 job.

“She’s also faced new opportunities” for organizing and motivating younger workers, “and new threats,” including from AI (artificial intelligence) technology, says Samuel. The federation met that with a ground-breaking agreement with Microsoft to create joint labor-management teams which will develop AI curricula for workers—and train the unionist members as “train the trainers” to take advantage of AI’s benefits while avoiding its threat to jobs.

Microsoft also inked a signed agreement for company neutrality in all union organizing drives, particularly by the Communications Workers, there and at its subsidiaries.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.