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labor Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO's Combative President: 'We Still Punch Far Above Our Weight'

Under Trumka, labor has sought to extend its power by alliances, cooperating with African-American groups, immigrant groups, environmental groups and others as well as car wash workers and day laborers seeking to organizers. He points to the wave of Fight for $15 protests scheduled for April 15 as an example of a new way workers are flexing their muscles.

Susan Walsh/AP

Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, is in a fighting mood. With election season starting up again, the ursine leader of the main US labor federation is heading a crusade against the planned Trans-Pacific trade pact – which he says will undermine America’s economy and workers – while launching broadside attacks at the Republican presidential candidates, who he says are out to sabotage social security, labor unions and much more.

Even though organized labor has lost members and clout in recent years, the AFL-CIO remains a formidable force in political campaigns and on Capitol Hill – it has single-handedly snarled Barack Obama’s efforts to get Congress to bless the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation accord under negotiation. “We punch far above our weight,” said Trumka, whose top-floor office looks across Lafayette Park to the White House.
Under Trumka, labor has sought to extend its power by alliances, cooperating with African-American groups, immigrant groups, environmental groups and others as well as car wash workers and day laborers seeking to organizers. He pointed to the wave of Fight for $15 protests scheduled for April 15 as an example of a new way workers are flexing their muscles. “Fast-food workers, Walmart workers and others are rising up and we’re starting to see corporations respond, with Walmart, Target and a number of others give raises, but it’s certainly not enough,” he said.
While he tussles with Obama on trade, Trumka simultaneously praises and mocks the Republican candidates for discussing income inequality. “I like the fact that they’re adopting our language and recognizing that inequality is a problem and that falling wages are a problem, even though their policies are what got us here and even though the policies they’re pushing will make things worse,” he said.
In a wide-ranging interview, Trumka praised Hillary Clinton, now the official presidential frontrunner for the Democratic party. Nonetheless, Trumka – who has headed the 56-union federation since 2009 – said labor would press her, like every other candidate, to spell out how she would raise wages for America’s badly squeezed workers.
“I find Hillary a wonderful, independent woman who is very, very smart,” Trumka said. Then in an unmistakable effort to nudge her to the left, he added: “There are people like that I wouldn’t necessarily vote for if their policies are bad. It’s about policy. It’s about what are you going to do to raise wages. It’s about what are you going to do to change the rules to help everybody and not just those at the top.”
On Sunday, as Clinton released a video announcing her candidacy, Trumka issued a statement welcoming her into the race and saying she “has been an inspiration for tens of millions of women in America and around the globe”. He praised her planned listening tour, predicting that voters would tell her of “an urgent need to raise wages in America, and an equally urgent need to reject corporate-driven agendas that produce everything from tax breaks for the wealthy to destructive trade agreements”. Trumka stopped short of endorsing Clinton – any endorsement would have to come from the AFL-CIO’s executive council.
In the interview, Trumka declined to say whether he would like a second Democrat to enter the race to challenge Clinton. Some powerful union presidents, like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, are very close to Clinton. Pressed about whether he wants an additional Democrat to run, Trumka said: “It could be helpful because it sharpens the messages of both candidates.” But he quickly added: “I didn’t say I wished that.”
Asked about two of labor’s favorites, Trumka said: “Sherrod Brown is a great person. Elizabeth Warren is a great person. I think they can be great presidents.” He said that the Democratic senator from Ohio and the Democratic senator for Massachusetts, like anyone else who runs, would have to articulate a vision of why they would want to be president.
Trumka’s praise turned to scorn when asked about Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, an expected presidential candidate who pushed through a landmark 2011 law that curbed the ability of his state’s public sector unions to bargain collectively. At a conservative political conference in February, Walker enraged many in labor by suggesting that his success in facing down Wisconsin labor protesters showed that he could take on the Islamic State’s terrorists. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” he said.
Scott Walker’s job creation record has been ‘dismal’, says Trumka. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Scott Walker’s job creation record has been ‘dismal’, says Trumka. Photograph: Cliff Owen/AP Trumka, a burly man who used to head the mineworkers’ union, seemed eager to wallop Walker. “It was insulting to every American worker out there that he equated American workers with terrorists, that he said he can stand up to terrorists because he can stand up to the American worker.”
While Walker boasts that he cut taxes and lifted Wisconsin out of recession, Trumka said: “He has no record to run on. His job creation has been dismal.”
Trumka said it would be entertaining to watch the cavalcade of candidates in the Republican presidential primary. “At the end of the day they have to answer the question of many people: ‘What are you going to do to raise our wages,’” he said. “They can’t answer, ‘I’m going to cut taxes on the rich. I’m going to give more power to corporations. I’m going to take away health care from millions of people.’ That’s not a winning message. They’re going to have to articulate what they’re going to do to help working Americans, and it’s going to be fun to watch”
Trumka voiced concern that money from ultra-rich donors – he mentioned the $899m that just one conservative group, the Koch brothers’ political organization, says it will assemble for the 2016 campaign – would overwhelm what all of labor spends, often $300m to $400m in a campaign cycle. Even though the supreme court’s Citizens United decision freed labor as well as corporations to spend more in campaigns, Trumka denounced the ruling, saying it has enabled corporations and the rich to block numerous measures that have strong public support, such as raising the minimum wage and a federal paid sick days law.
The Supreme Court did a terrible service to democracy when it equated money with free speech Richard Trumka “The supreme court did a terrible service to democracy when it equated money with free speech,” Trumka said. “It says that the richer you are the more free speech you have, which is absurd. The pollution of that money is corrosive to our democracy and is threatening to undermine democracy itself.”
Trumka said he thought public financing of campaigns would be a good idea; he noted that the AFL-CIO’s executive council has not taken a position on this issue. “I support anything that increases the individual voices of Americans when it comes to the democratic process,” he said.
There is one area where Trumka voiced confidence that labor’s clout could trump corporate money: the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trumka and all of labor are pushing Congress not to approve “fast-track” voting for the trade pact; fast track is an unusual step in which Congress votes up or down on a measure, without being able to amend it. The Obama administration insists that fast track is essential, arguing that without it, other nations would hesitate to grant politically painful concessions during negotiations if Congress could later reject individual parts of any trade deal.
In Trumka’s view, fast track is neither transparent nor democratic. “The only reason to say we need fast track is if we can’t pass the deal without an up-or-down vote,” he said. “If they can’t pass it the way other pieces of legislation get passed, it’s probably unworthy of the American people.”
The nation’s unions have suspended all Pac donations pending Congress’s vote on fast track – a muscular move that many see as ratcheting up pressure on Democrats.
Some observers have voiced surprise that labor is going all out to defeat fast track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership when just 9.4% of union members are in manufacturing, with jobs vulnerable to imports.
Trumka said that the Trans-Pacific deal, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, would hurt US workers and increase the trade deficit. “It doesn’t affect just people in manufacturing,” he said. “It affects everybody, including people in services. When high wages are driven down in manufacturing and elsewhere, it affects everyone in the community. When a manufacturing plant moves out – and we’ve lost tens of thousands of them since 2000 – it affects everybody. It hurts the wage base and tax base. The school district gets hit; services are affected.”
The Obama administration says the Trans-Pacific Partnership will boost US economic growth, increase exports and “support American jobs”. “The TPP not only seeks to provide new and meaningful market access for American goods and services exports, but also set high-standard rules for trade,” the trade representative’s office says.
Trumka said TPP has numerous shortcomings, quickly mentioning the secretive special courts where corporations could file complaints against a country if they believe laws or regulations treat them unfairly.
One of Trumka’s biggest complaints is that the accord doesn’t address currency manipulation. He said: “Currency manipulation has cost this country millions of jobs. You can erase all the benefits you get from the agreement in one day if currency is manipulated to give unfair advantage.”
Without going into details – negotiators are bound to secrecy – the Obama administration has hinted that TPP would create stronger labor protections than previous trade pacts. But Trumka said: “It’s the same tired old labor standards.” He said that while corporations would be able to bring cases directly in the special courts, unions unhappy about labor violations would need to persuade governments to bring complaints. In such cases, he said, governments have often been unresponsive or slow – he said a Guatemalan labor rights case has languished six years. He added that the labor protections in the trade agreement with Colombia have done far too little to stop the murders of trade unionists there. More than 70 have been killed over the past four years.
Never before have unions been so unified in opposing anything, Trumka said proudly. “There’s a large array of money against us,” he said. “We will fight and we’ll ultimately prevail. If everybody said, ‘You can’t win, stop,’ we’d never make any progress in this country. We never would have broken away from England if someone had persuaded us, ‘You can’t win, stop.’”