The most powerful labor leader in America is facing declining membership and the most hostile presidential administration in memory. He says that he’s an “optimist.” But should he be?
Trumka grew up in a coal-mining family in Pennsylvania and served as president of the United Mine Workers union for more than a decade before going to work for the AFL-CIO. He has been president of the labor coalition since 2009, making him the most prominent organized labor figure in America, overseeing a federation of 55 unions with more than 12 million members. As such, he influences a great deal of political spending and is a power broker of sorts in the Democratic Party. In 2016, the AFL-CIO endorsed Hillary Clinton for president (but did not make an endorsement in the Democratic primaries), and worked to dissuade union members from voting for Donald Trump.
Following Trump’s remarks about the Charlottesville protests and violence, Trumka resigned from the White House’s Business Council, a move that some said should have been made much earlier. On Tuesday, we met with Trumka in his D.C. office—which looks out onto the White House—to discuss the terrifying state of national politics, the equally terrifying state of union membership in America, and what Trumka wants to see the Democrats do, lest we find ourselves with seven more years of Trump.
Splinter: I’ll start with the question everyone asked me to ask you: Why did you wait until just weeks ago to quit Trump’s “Business Council?”
Richard Trumka: I don’t think I waited so long. I thought about leaving that council a month after we were on it, because the council was totally ineffective. It never had a meeting. It was just sort of an excuse to deregulate industries. We never had a meeting, for god’s sake. Whenever it came down to what happened at Charlottesville that weekend [and Trump made his equivocating statements at a subsequent press conference]... I said, ‘This is the end of the line.’
There are a lot of people on the left who would like to see the AFL-CIO be part of “The Resistance.”
Trumka: We are.
You are? Do you not feel like, “we still have to work with this guy?”
Trumka: Any time he does something that’s bad for working people, we’re at the front of that line, not the back. Let me ask you something: If I can work with him to get an infrastructure bill to put millions of people to work, do you think I should? If I can work with him and get something done that helps working people, do you think I should? That’s how I feel about it. I said this when he got elected. I’ll call balls and strikes. If he does something good for working people, I’ll help him. When he does something bad, or offends our values, we’ll fight him. And we’ve been true to that.
Some unions, particularly the building trades, have done photo-ops with Trump and very publicly associated with him. What do you think of that?
Trumka: The building trades aren’t fooled. They don’t applaud him when he does things that hurt working people. They’ve stood up just like the rest of the unions. Their members have stood side by side with us to oppose racism. Their members have stood side by side with the rest of the labor movement to fight against bad trade deals. There was a new president, I think they wanted to see if there was an opportunity to work with him.
Just over 10% of American workers are union members today, less than half of the membership rate in the 1980s. Do you consider this decline a crisis?
Trumka: Of course I do.
Is there a plan to turn it around?
Trumka: Of course there’s a plan to turn it around. Let me ask you this: Why do you think that is?... You have a system that’s rigged against working people. You have a system of labor laws that’s designed for working people to lose. You’ve had a shift in power under globalization that makes corporations too strong, and working people not strong enough. All of that’s conspired to say—working people’s wages have been flat, inequality’s grown, and our democracy itself is under attack. You have to look at changing the rules of the economy, because the rules are designed for working people to lose.
Given the fact that that’s the playing field we have today, is there a plan to turn around the decline in union membership even in the existing environment?
Trumka: Yeah, it’s multifaceted. Part of it is, we’ve changed the way we do politics, so that our agenda drives our politics, not our politics driving our agenda. If somebody will work with us on that agenda, we’ll work with them. And that lets you change the rules of the economy. You start to elect people that are more worker-friendly, and they start writing rules that are more worker-friendly, so that wages start to increase again. You bring collective bargaining to more and more people. We think everyone ought to have collective bargaining. Whether you’re in a union or not, you ought to be able to sit down with your employer and bargain for better wages. That’s not the way it is in this country right now.
Some of it is scale. Doing more to organize to scale. And we’re working on that. But they cut into that by doing all kinds of things—by ‘right to work’ laws, by having unnecessary regulations. They talk about ‘too many regulations’ everywhere except for one place. Labor is the most regulated group in this country. No one is regulated more than labor. Yet they don’t talk about that when they say that we are too regulated.
The good news is that each year, more and more people support labor unions. And the better news is, more and more young people support labor unions. In fact, a majority of Americans in a poll we just did said they’d vote for a union tomorrow if they had the chance. They won’t get the chance, for a lot of reasons.
When you look at a list of the biggest companies in America today—Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook—none of those tech companies are unionized. Why do you think that is?
Trumka: The question is, do you think those people want to be unionized?
Well, nobody’s tried.
Trumka: The scale of it’s massive. And when you get something that big, it’s gonna take a coordination, and that’s what we’re working on: coordinating larger [union] drives of larger units. Bringing the resources and the talent from multiple unions together to do single organizing drives. That’s what we’re working on now.
I guess the question is, do you feel like organized labor is really following the economy where it’s moving?
Trumka: I think absolutely we are. In many ways we’re starting to look ahead of that, and get our skill set ready for where the economy is gonna be, not where it is. We are consciously looking at where work is headed.
Where do you see the opportunities for growth for unions?
Trumka: Quite frankly I don’t see any areas where there isn’t opportunity. As you pointed out... 88-90% of people out there aren’t organized. They need a voice on the job, and they tell us they need a voice on the job. You find tremendous opportunities in health care. Tremendous opportunities in home care. Tremendous opportunities in high tech and the evolution to high tech, artificial intelligence and robotics.
The United Auto Workers recently failed in a large-scale organizing campaign at a Nissan factory in Mississippi. Is there a way to successfully do that sort of organizing down South, in “right to work” states, or is it hopeless?
Trumka: We’re organizing the South. The nurses [union] just organized eight hospitals in Texas. If you couldn’t organize, I’d say Texas is one of the toughest states. Look at what happened at Volkswagen [when the UAW lost a union election at a factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2014]: You had a governor and a sitting Senator come out and threaten those workers, that if they voted union, they would take away funding for their company. That’s the atmosphere that we have to attack. Give us a fair playing field, and workers will choose to have a voice on the job.
The SEIU, one of America’s strongest unions, announced budget cuts when Trump was elected, then announced that they plan to spend $100 million on the upcoming elections. Is that the right strategy for labor now—pouring more resources into electoral politics?
Trumka: It’s not an either-or. The economy is nothing but a set of rules written by the men and women we elect. They gerrymandered things in so many states, it made it difficult to get any worker-friendly people elected. We have our eyeballs on that, and we’re working towards that. But at the same time you can’t stop organizing, you can’t stop educating, you can’t stop mobilizing your membership.
If you’re asking me if I think more money should be spent on organizing: Smart, strategic organizing, yes. Yes I do.
So you think the percentage of money that unions spend on organizing should grow?
Trumka: I do. I’ve said that repeatedly.
And what if that takes away from the amount of money you’re able to spend on politics?
Trumka: It isn’t either-or, because those aren’t the only two functions we do. We do numerous functions. I just reorganized this place so that I have a lot more resources to plan in campaigns and in organizing. It wasn’t I took from organizing—that’s a false choice. They work together. Because when you’re out doing organizing, you ought to be educating economically and politically. And when you’re doing politics, you ought to be laying the groundwork for organizing. They fit hand in glove.
Every election cycle, organized labor spends more money. And every year, the percentage of American workers who are unionized goes down. Is that a sustainable dynamic, constantly spending more on politics without growing your membership base?
Trumka: Again, that’s a false choice, because if you do smart politics, it has some benefit for you... if I give a dollar for politics, it doesn’t mean I took it from organizing.
Where did you take it from?
Trumka: A thousand other places.
How happy are you with the Democratic Party?
Trumka: I think the Democratic Party has missed an opportunity to gain a working, mass majority of America’s workers, because they haven’t had a firm economic agenda that workers could identify with and accept and support. They’ve talked a lot about everything, but they haven’t shown a strong economic agenda that addresses kitchen table issues and for workers. And I think in the last presidential election, Hillary had a program but she didn’t talk about it. She talked about how bad Trump was. I think most workers knew that. You had a system that had failed workers for three or four decades. Flat wages, growing inequality, growing economic insecurity, less health care benefits, less retirement benefits. They said, ‘Neither party gets it.’ They’d been screaming, and they were angry, and they wanted somebody to change things and address kitchen table economics. And a lot of them were willing to latch onto Trump because they thought the risk in supporting him was justified by the potential payout of changing the system.
Now, what they got sure wasn’t what was promised. It was bait-and-switch... If you look at the last election, only three percentage points more of our members voted for Trump than Romney. But ten percentage points of our members voted less for Hillary than they did Obama. They voted for either a third party candidate, or they didn’t vote. Because they didn’t believe her.
Do you think Bernie Sanders would have been a better candidate?
Trumka: I think you ask the wrong question. A better candidate, or run a better campaign? There’s a difference there. I think Bernie’s campaign would have addressed kitchen table issues, and it would have run much stronger, and it would have trumped Trump’s campaign.
What would you like to see the Democrats do going into 2018?
Trumka: Come up with an economic agenda that they’re willing to not only talk about, but fight for... How are you gonna raise people’s wages? How are you gonna give them better health care? How are you gonna give them a more secure retirement? How are you gonna be able to send their kids to school without sinking them with a mountain of debt? How are you going to give them a greater voice on the job? How are you gonna increase public education? Those are they types of things people sit around the table talking about. They really don’t sit around the table saying, ‘Oh, do you realize what the national debt is?’
Were you surprised by the 2016 election?
Trumka: Not the last three days. Because we saw what was happening on the ground. When Comey made that statement about her, all the undecideds started breaking away from her, because their thing was, ‘Should I believe her or not believe her?’
Has anything productive come out of your meetings with the Trump administration so far?
Trumka: We’re hopeful on trade, but who knows... we’ll see what happens on NAFTA. We’ll see. He talked about a trillion-dollar infrastructure. That’s the right scale, but we haven’t seen any bill, we haven’t seen any action. Where’s it at? And that’s not gonna come about by public-private partnerships. That’s gonna have to be new money plowed into that.
On manufacturing, it’s been disappointing. While he said he wanted to resurrect manufacturing... we haven’t seen anything but him talking about taking away regulations. He killed the beryllium regulation. He killed the silica standard. He killed the overtime standard. He’s trying to kill Sarbanes-Oxley. He’s trying to kill the consumer [financial] protection bureau. A number of other regulations that he’s taken on and turned over hurt working people.
What’s your greatest fear of what could come out of the Trump administration?
Trumka: I’m scared that we’ll up with a country that’s totally divided. Polarized. Not since Woodrow Wilson have we had a president in the White House that tried to divide us... This is the first generation that’s lived under globalization their entire life. First they saw their parents’ standard of living destroyed. They saw wages taken away, pensions taken away, health care taken away, in many cases houses taken away. They’re seeing the inability to go to college. But then they’re told, ‘Do all of this, play by the rules, and everything will be great for you.’ So they do it, and go out into an economy when they work for three or four people in a week, or in a day sometimes. They’re not getting by. They gotta go back home just to survive. So they’re starting to equate democracy with income inequality, lower wages, insecurity, and poverty. Now, what happens when a majority of the population feels that way? If we don’t change the rules, we definitely will find out. And that’s what the last election was about: People screaming to change the rules, and grabbing onto somebody, no matter what else they are, [if they think they will] change the rules.
What do you think about a guaranteed basic income?
Trumka: It’s an idea I like to play with. I see problems with it, but so what? See if we can work with it. If we can get a basic income—if it was a real basic income that kept people above the poverty line—that’s something that would be good to shoot for. We have people in the country right now that no matter what they do, they can’t break out. We used to be the country where upward mobility was the hallmark. Right now, where you’re born decides where you’re gonna end up more than anything in this country.