Trumka: Democratic House ‘has stood on the side of workers’
Richard Trumka | Alex Brandon/AP

WASHINGTON —The new Democratic-run U.S. House “has stood on the side of workers” on issues ranging from defending federal workers to opposing job-losing “free trade” pacts to pro-worker labor law reform, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says.

As a matter of fact, he added in a wide-ranging Q&A hosted by the Economic Club of Washington, the only current exception is the “Green New Deal,” and that’s “because we weren’t part of the process” or at the table when its backers drafted it, he said.

But the Democrats’ other big ideas, including wide-ranging electoral reform and Medicare For All – which Trumka predicted would come incrementally, starting with lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 50 – get labor’s support, he said.

Trumka gave his evaluation of those issues, and many others, in the hour-plus discussion on April 23 with the club’s president, and a follow up short session with reporters.

His evaluation comes as Congress considers many worker-oriented issues. Among them: Trade pacts, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour – “and a union” Trumka emphasized – and rewriting labor law to making it easier for workers to organize and defend themselves. Trumka predicted states’ minimum wage hikes will push Congress to yield on that raise.

But it also comes as the ruling Democrats wrestle with how to respond to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s devastating report about Russian manipulation of the 2016 presidential election, in favor of GOP nominee Donald Trump, and the Trump campaign’s subsequent contacts with the Russians and use of their information.

Neither Trumka nor his questioners raised the issue, and particularly whether the Democrats should impeach Trump for obstruction of justice in his constant attempts to derail Mueller’s probe, get witnesses to lie and to fire Mueller and, earlier, FBI Director James Comey.

Instead, they stuck to economics issues and workers’ rights. One big one was workers’ rights, or lack of them, in Mexico, where Trump has negotiated NAFTA 2.0, formally called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), a new “free trade” pact.

Trumka reiterated unions’ and workers’ opposition to the USMCA as it now stands, but said he’s had frequent meetings with Trump’s U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, over provisions of the legislation to implement it – and particularly over requiring Mexico to pass new stronger labor laws, set up mechanisms to enforce them and get rid of an estimated 700,000 low-wage contracts, all negotiated by company unions.

All that is supposed to occur within four years of the USMCA ratification and Trumka doubts it will. That’s one big reason Mexican wages will stay low and be a magnet for U.S. multinationals to continue to export jobs there – and one big reason the AFL-CIO opposes the USMCA as written now.

Trumka and Lighthizer have also met, less frequently, about the U.S.-China trade pact Trump has discussed. That pact is nowhere near completion. Trumka told the reporters it must include strong provisions against Chinese currency manipulation, among other restrictions.

Trumka talked of other topics besides trade. They included:

Collective action and collective bargaining: One problem labor faces, he added, is how to take the new energy nationwide of mass worker-led movements for “collective action” – everything from the Fight for 15 to Google workers walking out over sexual harassment on the job to teachers being forced to strike, and winning – and translate it into a movement for collective bargaining. He did not elaborate on how unions are wrestling with that question.

Right to work laws: Trumka predicted workers would repeal RTW in Wisconsin, where virulently former anti-worker Gov. Scott Walker (R) pushed it through over mass public opposition. That included 100,000 people jamming the streets of Madison in subzero cold and snow. Trumka cited Missourians’ 2-to-1 referendum repeal of RTW there after the GOP-run legislature passed it.

“They realized this is not a time to weaken unions,” due to income stagnation and inequality, he said. Trumka also criticized GOP passage of RTW in Michigan “at 2 or 3 am,” but made no predictions about repeal there.  He gave a backhanded compliment to the originator of the RTW slogan, which really, Trumka noted, lets non-members use union services without paying for them.

The need for unions:  Trumka returned to a frequent theme: That workers are embittered – and willing to turn away from democracy to demagoguery – by decades of flat and declining incomes while their productivity increased and gains from it went to the 1%.

Trumka again cited Harvard’s survey of millennials showing 70% trusted neither democracy nor capitalism. Those millennials, he added, come out with piles of debt, and after seeing their parents lose jobs, homes, and pensions to the Wall Street-caused Great Recession.

“There was a link between productivity and compensation. That went on until Ronald Reagan busted the Air Traffic Controllers” in 1981. That sent a signal to corporations nationwide “that it’s OK to bust unions,” he added. “Then the (Berlin) wall fell, and they decided to go for the whole thing and eliminate unions, too.”

The Janus decision where the Supreme Court ruled every state and local government worker in the U.S. is a potential “free rider,” just like RTW users in 26 states. “They” – the ruling’s right-wing backers – “thought we would lose membership. We didn’t.”

Trumka also admitted unions are weak in the South, citing political opposition. He singled out former GOP South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s vow “to prevent unions from coming to” the Palmetto State – and Tennessee officials threatening to cut off state subsidies if the Auto Workers won their organizing drive at the Volkswagen plant there.

But he then pivoted to note the collective action he cited came in Southern and/or RTW states such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky.

Card check, also called voluntary recognition: Trumka touted it again, even though it’s not in the current version of labor law reform the AFL-CIO and the House Democrats crafted so far. Card check stands for automatic recognition of the union as the workers’ representative when the union gets a verified majority of signed election authorization cards at a workplace. It’s been National Labor Relations Board policy since 1962, but it’s not part of labor law.

“If you had to go through, to vote, what a worker has to go through to get a union, there would be about five people voting” among the several hundred in the room, Trumka said. But card check and unions are needed for workers because union workers earned, he estimated, $150-$175 more weekly than their non-union counterparts in the same jobs.

Federal figures show Trumka’s estimate was low: The median weekly wage for all union workers in 2018 was $1,051. It was $860 for non-unionists. The median is the point where half the group is above and half is below.

While Trumka didn’t discuss Trump, Mueller and the Russians, he did disclose Trump, in their first post-election one-on-one meeting, launched another lie. Trumka explained exit polls showed Hillary Clinton – whom the AFL-CIO endorsed in the general election – saw the ratio of unionists voting for her stay almost same proportionally in 2016 as it did for Barack Obama in 2012.

But Clinton’s actual numbers of union voters dropped by 10%. Unionists, Trumka said of Clinton, “didn’t trust her.” While Trumka did not say so, much of that mistrust dates to Clinton’s husband, then-President Bill Clinton (D), shoving the original NAFTA through Congress, over strong worker and union opposition, 25-plus years ago.

Trump, Trumka said, had another take during their December 2016 meeting in New York’s Trump Tower. “He said ‘93% of your members voted for me.’ I said ‘I’d quibble with that.’”

Trumka added the federation has redone its process for evaluating the presidential hopefuls – now at 18 and counting, not including Trump. First, it’s invited each one to spend half a day on the job with a worker, then submit to questions from that worker and colleagues.

Then, probably in September, there would be another round of questioning from workers and union leaders. But Trumka put no timetable on when the federation would make an endorsement decision.


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.