Trumka Puts on the Gloves: “I’m in the Fight”
Policy + Politics

Trumka Puts on the Gloves: “I’m in the Fight”

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“I am best when I am in the fight,” says AFL-CIO’s scrappy president, Richard Trumka while seated in his spacious office just a stone’s throw from the White House.  “When we are in the fight, that’s when we are doing our best.”

But the former coal miner’s bravado does little to mitigate the crisis that is threatening to obliterate Big Labor’s political influence and clout at the bargaining table.  Republicans clobbered labor-backed candidates in the 20010 mid-term elections. Wisconsin GOP Governor Scott Walker last week signed a measure that eviscerates collective bargaining rights for some public sector workers following a bloody, political brawl.

And despite their strong support for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy, unions have failed to achieve their top legislative priorities since he has been in the White House – including relaxed organizing rules, mandatory paid sick leave, bigger fines for workplace safety violations and tougher mine-safety rules..At the same time, union membership continues to decline steadily.

“We were going to give Walker the
mobilizer of the year award because
he has done so much to bring us together.”

“This is the biggest concerted challenge or the biggest attempt to get rid of organized labor and get rid of collective bargaining and get rid of the working class’s ability to form together to get into the middle class that we have seen since the 30s,” Trumka asserted during a nearly hour-long interview with the Fiscal Times.

But rather than cringing in response to the steady stream of bad news, Trumka vows to fight back. He says that labor will pursue a multi-pronged effort against Wisconsin and other states that attack labor’s collective bargaining rights. He cites the recall efforts to try to oust GOP state lawmakers in Wisconsin, litigation to try to get the Wisconsin law thrown out and the new, more energized progressive coalition to make a difference on Election Day next year.

“We were going to give Walker the mobilizer of the year award because he has done so much to bring us together,” said Trumka, 61, the former president of the United Mineworkers of America. “He has created this clear edge right now—between who stands for working people and who doesn’t.”

His fiery rhetoric comes from years of battles, first for mineworkers, when in 1982, at 33, he became the youngest president of the UMWA. He led his union on a successful strike in one of the most contentious labor disputes of that period against Pittston Coal Company in 1989-1990.

Trumka, whose beefy, bulldog physique and thick mustache evoke the stereotypical image of the tough labor leader, became, in 1995, the Number Two candidate on an insurgent ticket led by John Sweeney that promised to breathe new life into the AFL-CIO, a voluntary federation of 56 national and international labor unions with 12.2 million members. When Sweeney retired in 2009, Trumka took the reins by acclamation.

But now Trumka is facing the toughest challenges of his career, coping on a daily basis with a toxic mix of events that would cause many other leaders a serious case of heartburn. “I don’t think we have seen an onslaught of this dimension for decades,” said labor expert Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.  “It is a transformational moment,” observed James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “It is very difficult for them. It is likely to get worse.”

The stakes unquestionably are enormous. A dozen states are taking a page from Wisconsin’s lead as they debate legislation to restrict collective bargaining in some way. Another five states are considering legislation to eliminate various other rights of public sector union members.

Even as these battles are raging, union membership numbers fell in 2010 by some 612,000 to 14.7 million, or just 6.9 percent of the private sector workforce and 36.2 percent of public sector workers. By contrast, in 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available, union membership constituted 20.1 percent of the workforce and 17.7 million workers.

Union Money to Candidate Coffers
Trumka’s take is that these recent moves in the states are about union busting by GOP governors determined to weaken a loyal Democratic constituency. In fact, public sector unions have funneled millions of dollars to Democratic candidates over the years. The Wall Street Journal reported that in the 2010 elections, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a public sector union, was the biggest outside donor of that cycle—at $87.5 million—to Democratic congressional candidates to try to prevent a GOP takeover of the House. GOP governors counter that their action is prompted by state budgets that they must bring into balance amid declining revenues, mounting Medicaid costs and shaky state employee pension systems. 

Trumka’s strong economic populism colors many of his answers in the interview as he repeatedly makes the case that fat-cats on Wall Street had a party, drove the economy into the ditch and now hope to be bailed out by sacrifices of rank-and-file workers.

Trumka pointed to the throng of demonstrators that descended on Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, and noted that there are serious recall efforts aimed at booting Republican state legislators from office. “That was a grassroots effort and in the first weekend while they were very under-staffed, in three of those [state] senate races, they got 25% of the votes necessary for a recall. That tells you how serious people are.”

“You will see some real realignment in politics in that state because they [Republicans] are overreaching. They were elected to create jobs, good jobs, and instead of creating those jobs, they are destroying middle class jobs by taking benefits away.”

But what about Obama? After all, he has repeatedly disappointed labor. For example, he recently imposed a pay freeze on federal workers, signed an extension of the Bush era tax cuts, agreed to health care legislation that did not contain the public option and never made the bill to facilitate union organizing, the Employee Free Choice Act, a priority. He also has not exactly been outspoken about the events in Wisconsin, though he did refer to the efforts to undermine collective bargaining as an “assault” on unions.

Despite those disappointments, Trumka says: “I still give him high grades because I think he has done a good job. He was dealt a very, very bad hand. The economy was about to go off the cliff; he had two wars going nowhere in different directions. He has brought order to the economy; he has re-regulated Wall Street; he has named some good people to cabinet positions…While I wouldn’t give him A pluses, I would give him high marks.”

Related Links:
Trumka to Congress:  We Need Jobs (The Fiscal Times)
AFL-CIO President Says Unions Owe Walker a Thank You (The Atlantic)
$4 Trillion Cut from Budget’s Sacred Cows in New Plan (The Fiscal Times)