In his first public interview since he was nearly forced out of one of the highest positions in organized labor, AFL-CIO executive vice president Tefere Gebre says that he has been targeted by political opponents within the union coalition seeking to steer labor on a more conservative path in the Trump era.
In May, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka abruptly suspended Gebre, the third-highest official at the 12.5-million member labor coalition, from his job, alleging expense account abuse. Gebre was eventually restored to his job after an internal uproar, and many observers believed the episode was an attempt by Trumka to find a pretext to sideline Gebre, who is seen as more progressive and in favor of broadening organized labor’s mandate to integrate it more fully with the broader American social justice movement.
Speaking to Jonathan Tasini on an episode of the “Working Life” podcast released late last week, Gebre directly addressed the episode for the first time—saying that the dispute was rooted in his political differences with forces within the AFL-CIO who opposed his focus on issues like mass incarceration, immigrant workers, racism, and the struggles of working people of color.
“After Donald Trump got elected, we became afraid of those issues,” he said. “Our budget where I work at does not reflect those priorities. The rhetoric may be there, but our budget doesn’t reflect that... I don’t have the space I used to have before Donald Trump got elected to actually work on those things.”
Gebre did not name Trumka or anyone else in his comments, but he did agree with Tasini’s remark that his suspension was rooted in “significant political difference of opinion about the direction of the AFL-CIO, which is reflected in where the money’s spent.”
Under Richard Trumka’s decade-long reign atop the labor group, spending on new union organizing has fallen in favor of electoral political spending. Last month, multiple former AFL-CIO officials went on the record to criticize Trumka’s leadership style, spending priorities, and perceived attachment to the priorities of the white working class rather than to a broader and more diverse set of working people in America.
Gebre, who immigrated to America from Ethiopia and who is the only person of color among the AFL-CIO’s top officers, is back at work, but it is clear that the underlying political disagreements within the union world have not been solved. “I worry that a movement is passing in front of us,” Gebre said. “A movement is passing across 16th street [where the AFL-CIO headquarters is located], and we’re not walking outside to join it.”
[The full episode. Gebre’s comments on the internal issues at the AFL-CIO begin around the 34-minute mark.]