Trumka: Workers “not interested in a sliver of change”
Richard Trumka speaking at the Christian Science Monitor Forum. | Christian Science Monitor

WASHINGTON—Workers are “not interested in a sliver of change or gestures” from politicians, but demand massive shifts to an economy that works for them, and not the 1 percent, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says. And, primed by their unions, they’re already demanding and getting that commitment from presidential candidates on the campaign trail, he adds.

That economy that works for all must include strong worker rights safeguards, through the Pro (Protect The Right To Organize) Act on Capitol Hill and through massive changes in labor laws and enforcement in Mexico before the U.S. Congress ratifies any “new NAFTA” pact, Trumka adds.

“We need action to transform the economy,” and not just in trade pacts, Trumka told an annual pre-Labor Day press breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor on August 29.

Trumka noted that unions’ popularity, at least as measured by an annual Gallup Poll, reached a record 64% approval. But that hasn’t translated, yet, into increasing union numbers, due to the loopholes and flaws of U.S. labor law.

He sees change coming, though, citing new state-level legislation that will open the way to organizing more than 120,000 workers and due to the fact that public employee unions, thought to be harmed by last year’s right-wing U.S. Supreme Court Janus decision, have added 200,000 members in AFSCME and 88,000 in the Teachers (AFT) alone.

But the disconnect between popularity and results has led the AFL-CIO, in its preparations for the 2020 presidential campaign, to undertake a massive education effort among its unions’ members, prepping them on questions for the Democratic contenders. The quizzes are a prelude to what Trumka predicts will be a record labor political effort next year, though he gave no details.

Those questions involve kitchen-table issues, such as years of stagnant wages, pensions which crashed in the Great Recession, increased corporate shifting of health care spending from firms to workers, and the right to organize free of corporate interference and repression. The ProAct, designed to massively strengthen labor law, now has more than 200 U.S. House co-sponsors and 41 Senate co-sponsors.

The kitchen-table questions also include so-called “free trade” pacts and business’s corresponding massive export of U.S. jobs to Mexico.

The latest such pact, the “new NAFTA” GOP President Donald Trump strong-armed Mexico and Canada into signing, “still falls short” when it comes to guaranteeing and enforcing worker rights in Mexico, Trumka said. “We need a pact that upholds the rights and dignity of working people” in all three NAFTA nations, he added.

To see whether such a pact – and safeguards – can be achieved, Trumka is leading a delegation of union presidents to Mexico City on September 4 to discuss the issue with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and other officials. But he admitted, by inference, it may be an uphill climb.

In one of many examples, Trumka pointed out Mexican firms – especially Mexican factories of U.S.-based multinationals – have negotiated 700,000 contracts with pro-government, pro-company unions.  The new NAFTA, formally called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) includes a Mexican pledge to dismantle those pacts and to replace the pro-company unions with independent unions within four years. Trumka doubts that will occur. He also doubted Mexican wages would rapidly rise.

“Trade without enforcement is a windfall for corporations and disastrous for workers. If Mexico can’t ensure that” the new NAFTA is a non-starter…We need him (Obrador) to show how he guarantees the rights of working people or workers all over North America will suffer.”

All those issues, and more, have come up on the U.S. campaign trail as unionists have quizzed the Democratic presidential hopefuls. The results, Trumka said, have been gratifying.

“We’re excited that all the candidates are talking about workers’ rights and unions, and that’s a big plus,” Trumka said when asked to rank five top contenders: Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.,  and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Trumka declined to rank them. “Any (AFL-CIO) endorsement will come from the bottom up – from our members through our executive council. And it’ll take 70% of the vote there.”

“They’re asking candidates about their position on different issues that are important to them. And forcing the candidates to think about it,” Trumka said of union members. “And if they have a position, it’s stated. If they don’t, they think it through and get a position. That’s where we’ve been largely successful and we will do that again.”

And in that respect, all the current hopefuls differ from 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, whom most unions supported early in her contest with Sanders. She put kitchen table issues second, behind criticizing Trump, said Trumka.

“The more that they (current candidates) talk about changing the rules — and it’s not just trade, it’s tax laws, it’s regulations, it’s health and safety, it’s education, it’s health care, it’s pensions. It’s bankruptcy laws that have stripped workers of their pensions over the years” the greater the possibility they’ll win workers’ votes, he said.

It’s “what case they make on all of them. And then our members will say: ‘That’s the one that we want.’”

“The lesson the Democrats and the candidates have come to understand is that unless you talk about kitchen-table economic issues, you won’t get elected.” But they can’t just give lip service, he warned.

On other issues, Trumka reiterated labor’s opposition to Trump’s nomination of Eugene Scalia, a pro-management attorney, to be the new Labor Secretary. Trump formally sent Scalia’s name to the Senate on August 26. No hearings have been scheduled yet on the nod.

“We actively opposed him in 2002, because his record was so bad” when GOP President George W. Bush nominated Scalia to be Solicitor of Labor, the department’s top legal post. “It’s only gotten worse. His views are dangerously outside the mainstream.”

Union opposition to Scalia, son of the late conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice, helped scuttle Bush’s nomination. Scalia never got a hearing.

And Trumka led off his speech with particular scorn for Trump, though he did not name him.

“Working people are rising to meet this moment in history because we know something is deeply wrong,” he said.

“Our nation is being poisoned by hateful rhetoric and divisive tactics at the highest levels of government. People of color are being scapegoated, minimized, dehumanized and told to go back where they came from. Racist dog whistles have been replaced with megaphones.”

“Women are openly degraded and discriminated against. And America’s welcome mat, long a beacon of hope for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, including my parents, is being bulldozed and paved over, replaced with a clear message: “you’re not welcome here.”

“Meanwhile, the rich continue to hoard unprecedented money and power, while the people who build that wealth are working harder and longer, for less money, with less dignity, in harsher, more dangerous workplaces. Faced with the reality of historic inequality and rising bigotry that goes all the way to the top, the labor movement is offering a path forward lit by solidarity,” he declared.


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.