Trumka: Democratic-run U.S. House ‘has stood on the side of workers’

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

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.”

Income inequality threatens democracy. Repeating an analysis he often uses, Trumka said “You know something is wrong with the economy when, at its peak, workers are not seeing the potential gains they worked for. Unless the rules [of capitalism and democracy] get changed, we are in jeopardy of imploding.”

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 “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 that 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.       

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Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Press Associates

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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