Trumka: Dems ‘have to pay attention to working people’ to win
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka | Alex Brandon/AP

As they head into the homestretch of the 2020 campaign, national Democrats “have to pay attention to working people” to win this fall, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says.

And presidential nominee Joe Biden, who was formally approved by the party’s virtual convention roll call on August 18 “gets it,” he declares.

“He’s always been a blue-collar guy and he’s still a blue-collar guy,” the union federation chief added.

Trumka gave that analysis, and a critique of what 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton didn’t do, in a 35-minute interview with Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post before the rollcall that evening. The interview is one of a series the paper has been running for weeks with analysts, newsmakers, and politicians both before and during the conclave.

Trumka is the sole union leader in the week’s 20-person convention-oriented lineup. The wrap-up on August 20, before Biden’s acceptance speech that night, will feature House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Biden’s last presidential primary foe, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., who has enthusiastically endorsed the former vice president.

Going into the rollcall, Biden has advantages Clinton lacked. Public opinion polls show a virtual tie between Biden and GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump in a constituency, blue-collar white men, whom Trump heavily carried four years ago.

And, Trumka said, Biden learned from Clinton’s mistakes of taking both union voters and certain states, notably the Great Lakes industrial states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, for granted. She skipped at least the first two.

All four states narrowly went for Trump. Also hurting Clinton was union voters remembering former Democratic President Bill Clinton pushing through the jobs-losing “free trade” pact, NAFTA. In those four states, Trump won half of union family votes, narrowly winning all four, and therefore the electoral college and the presidency. Hillary Clinton, of course, won the popular vote despite losing the presidency.

Misogyny, of course, was a major factor along with voters in those states accepting right-wing propaganda that Trump was the solution to the problem of both parties having left them behind.

One reason those voters deserted, Trumka said, is they justifiably believed the powers-that-be, in both politics and corporate suites and in both parties, had left them behind. That’s persisted, but Biden is addressing it, unlike Hillary Clinton, he added.

“Right now, there’s inequality of wealth and wages. There’s inequality of opportunity. And there’s inequality of power. But you can’t address the first two without addressing the inequality of power,” first, Trumka explained.

“Joe understands that” and understands the way to achieve it is “workers have to have a stronger voice on the job, and that there is a need to grow the economy from the bottom up and the center out, not from the top down.”

As a result, Trumka declared, the Democratic platform, which he helped draft, “is the most pro-union platform I’ve seen in my 50 years” in the labor movement.

Capehart, however, challenged Trumka by saying those same blue-collar white voters, especially men, saw Trump as blue-collar, too, despite his palatial Park Avenue digs and Mar-A-Lago estate. The AFL-CIO chief replied he believes those voters saw Trump as “a guy who said ‘I’ll come in and change the rules for you.’”

“He’s changed them all right. Our (worker) health and safety are threatened. Our wages are threatened. Our pensions are threatened. Our rights are threatened. And workers aren’t stupid. When you take away” those safeguards and standard of living, they know it.

But as unionists hit the campaign trail for Biden and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.—at least in ways the coronavirus pandemic’s restrictions will let them campaign—they face another barrier in talking Biden with their colleagues: A 10-percentage point lead for Trump over Biden in handling the economy, despite the current official jobless rate of 10.2%, at least 31 million unemployed and GOP refusal to extend the $600 weekly federal unemployment relief checks through the end of January.

So Biden, Trumka said, must make the case by facing forward, emphasizing platform planks and his own record in proposing and pushing through a large public works job creation program, centered around both traditional infrastructure and green jobs.

Those plans, Trumka again emphasized, are “geared towards working people” particularly blue-collar workers “and giving them a fair shake.”

“What’s Donald Trump gonna do?” he asked sarcastically. “Say ‘I lost (you) 12.9 million jobs this year.’” That’s the minimum number that disappeared when the coronavirus-caused closures plunged the U.S. into the deepest crash since the Great Depression.

The pandemic and its impact will also be a big worker theme on the campaign trail, Trumka predicted. Biden has already started in on that, with a hard-hitting pre-convention critique of Trump’s malfeasance and offering his own plan.

It starts with everyone nationwide wearing anti-virus face masks in public whenever outside or in public spaces such as restaurants, stores, or hotel lobbies.

But Trumka also noted that Trump’s predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama, who was Biden’s boss, had federal anti-pandemic structures in place. Those structures helped the U.S. respond quickly and effectively to the 2013-16 Ebola pandemic in West Africa. U.S. aid and technical expertise helped confine it there and prevent it from spreading. Trump dismantled the whole apparatus, Trumka said, leaving the U.S. virtually defenseless against the coronavirus and then ducked responsibility. Trump also wants to send all kids back to school, regardless of anti-coronavirus readiness, or lack of it.

“He wouldn’t even help us get PPE,” Trumka said, referring to personal protective equipment, such as masks, ventilators, hazmat suits, and protective gloves. “We still had to provide these ourselves. Thousands of (union) workers got sick and several hundred have died.”

Overall, the latest figures from the most authoritative source, Johns Hopkins University, show that as of mid-afternoon August 18, 5.469 million people have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic was declared March 13 and 171,343 have died.

“You can’t fix the economy”—Trump’s mantra—“until you fix the pandemic,” Trumka said.



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.