Richard Trumka declares labor's independence

The man who shamed Democrats for anti-Obama racism vows to put AFL-CIO cash into its own future, not the party's

Published May 6, 2011 12:30PM (EDT)

President Barack Obama and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka
President Barack Obama and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka

One of the shining moments of the 2008 presidential campaign came when AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka confronted the racism that was making some white union members, even staunch Democrats, reluctant to vote for Barack Obama. The son and grandson of miners from Nemacolin, Pa., who went into the mines himself, then went to law school, then became UMWA president, Trumka described the way he challenged an old family friend and local Democrat who confided she wouldn't vote for the Democratic nominee because he was black. He told the story in a series of speeches that summer; one went up on YouTube, where it's been viewed more than a half-million times, becoming a case study in the way courage and candor can fight racism.

I said, ‘Look around. Nemacolin’s a dying town. There’re no jobs here. Kids are moving away because there’s no future here. And here’s a man, Barack Obama, who’s going to fight for people like us and you won’t vote for him because of the color of his skin.’ Brothers and sisters, we can’t tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of folks out there just like that woman.

A lot of them are good union people; they just can’t get past this idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a black man. Well, those of us who know better can’t afford to look the other way…. I don’t think we should be out there pointing fingers in peoples’ faces and calling them racist; instead we need to educate them that if they care about holding on to their jobs, their health care, their pensions, and their homes — if they care about creating good jobs with clean energy, child care, pay equity for women workers — there’s only going to be one candidate on the ballot this fall who’s on their side… only one candidate who’s going to stand up for their families… only one candidate who’s earned their votes… and his name is Barack Obama!

Three years later, Trumka is still teaching and preaching, only now his target is often that same Barack Obama, and other Democrats who've let Republicans set the terms of the debate over the deficit and the economy. With the spontaneous public backlash against anti-labor GOP governors from Wisconsin to Ohio to Maine, Trumka and other union leaders have an unexpected opportunity to rebuild the sagging labor movement -- but it's not obvious how to do it. There's new political support from non-union members bewildered by an ultra-right GOP assault on working people. But there's also a disappointing three-year record of Democrats looking for compromise with the anti-labor, pro-plutocrat GOP. What's a pillar of the overmatched, underfunded Democratic Party to do?

Between the opportunity provided by post-Wisconsin organizing and the disappointing record of a Democratic White House, labor has a big decision: Go all in with the president and party leaders in 2012, or figure out how to advance its agenda by charting a more independent path. The influential firefighters union made headlines last week by announcing it was shifting its resources from presidential and congressional elections into local races, to fight the growing assault on public worker rights at the state and county level. "It's a pattern of disappointments," union president Harold Schaitberger told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. "Our friends have not found a way to deliver on behalf of workers, on behalf of the middle class. We are turning the spigot off and redirecting our efforts out to the various states where we are fighting these fights."

Meanwhile, there's a raft of new "independent expenditure" organizations backing Democrats, to try to help the party fight on the dismal, polluted terrain of anonymous donors legalized by the Supreme Court's pro-corporate Citizens United decision. In 2008, candidate Obama strong-armed Democratic donors to funnel resources to his organization, and independent groups shut down. Now, one of the newest, Priorities USA, is led by Obama lieutenant Bill Burton. "Karl Rove and the Koch brothers cannot live by one set of rules as our values and our candidates are overrun with their hundreds of millions of dollars," Burton told ABC's Jake Tapper. " We will follow the rules as the Supreme Court has laid them out, but the days of the double standard are over.” While the Citizens United decision is the major driver behind the organizing of Democratic IE groups, a secondary factor is some activists' unhappiness with the way the Obama White House used its powerful machine of donors and volunteers after the 2008 election – or rather, didn't use it, discouraging independent campaigns on behalf of the president's healthcare proposal, against conservative Blue Dog Democrats, even talking down OFA support of public workers in Wisconsin.

Trumka's AFL-CIO famously bucked the White House, supporting Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's unsuccessful primary challenge to Blue Dog Sen. Blanche Lincoln. When Halter lost,  anonymous White House officials attacked labor leaders as "absolute idiots" who had been "humiliated" after flushing $10 million "down the toilet." In an interview last week Trumka seemed unchastened by attacks over the Halter bid, and he pledged the AFL-CIO to a new independence from Democratic Party  organizations and candidates.  He didn't spell out exactly what that might mean, citing decisions to be made by the federation's governing Executive Council. "You'll see us giving less to party structure, and more to our own structure," Trumka promised. "It's actually going to be fun."

Trumka seems to be having fun in the wake of Wisconsin, working with a 60-member coalition on the AFL-CIO's "We are One" rallies that turned out hundreds of thousands of people in cities across the nation on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis, where he'd traveled to support striking sanitation workers, a reminder of earlier alliances between the civil rights movement and labor. Trumka recently launched an "Executive Pay Watch" project, to track the gulf between CEO salaries and the average worker's and hosted economist Joseph Stiglitz, in the wake of his widely read Vanity Fair piece "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%." As we talked, Trumka sketched out graphs showing the way the income gains tied to U.S. productivity increases have gone to the top 10 percent over the last 30 years, and pushed PowerPoints and pie charts across his desk, showing me the way Democrats have become almost as reliant as Republicans on corporate money (Republicans get 79 percent of campaign contributions from business; Democrats get 72 percent, and the share from unions has dropped in half in just the last decade.) Like other labor and progressive leaders, Trumka is trying to figure out how to compete in a war of ideas as well as campaign dollars.

Did Wisconsin surprise you?

You know, you knew it was coming. It was more like: When? What's going to be the final pinpoint that makes it happen? [The public employee unions] were being eminently reasonable. [Gov. Scott Walker] creates the deficit, he lies about their wages being higher; they're not; he lies about the pension program being underfunded; it's not. But the unions accepted the proposal, that they'd pay more for healthcare and pensions. People are saying enough is enough. It was truly a spontaneous grass-roots rank and file movement, and it's still growing. Now it's up to us to convert it from a moment to a movement.

If you look at what happened for the last 30 years, the rich and the well-to-do and the corporations had a party, and working people weren't invited to the party. From 1946 to 1973, productivity was rising and so were wages; productivity and wages were linked at that time. People in the bottom two quartiles, their wages were rising faster than those at the top. As a result, the wage gap was closing, and the middle class was born. From '73 to the present, wages stagnated, but productivity went up, and all of the income gains have gone to the top 10 percent; the top 1 percent have taken 58 percent of the gains. From 46 to 73, we represented up to 40 percent of the labor force, and we were driving wages up for everyone. Now that we're down to 12 percent, we're not driving wages up, we're stagnant.

So workers have gone through four to five strategies to cope: First they worked overtime; then they sent another person into the workforce, but that didn't keep up; then they got a second job; then came the tech bubble, your 401K went up, you could borrow against it; then came the housing bubble, and your $100K house is worth $200K. So you could keep consuming even with flat wages. We've bumped up on the limits of all that now. We paid with our jobs, we paid with our homes, we'll see 2.5 million people lose their homes this year. [Republicans] believe that you can't provide good jobs, good pensions and security for people. You have to accept that the country is finished. They've scaled back the American dream. They've given up on America. We haven't given up on America.

It was good to hear that kind of rhetoric from President Obama when he laid out his own budget plan. But you said in a statement that you still thought his balance of spending cuts vs. tax increases, in attacking the deficit, was weighted too much in the spending-cut direction.

[Obama] made a strategic mistake when he started talking about the stimulus and deficit reduction at the same time. His message got jumbled. He started with an economic plan, and the rhetoric was right. But the scale wasn't there when it came to the stimulus package, which was woefully low and misstructured, with tax cuts. And now, we don't have a short-term deficit problem, we have a short-term jobs problem. Look at what caused the deficit: Wars, tax cuts, recession, healthcare. When they had a chance to fix healthcare, they jettisoned one of the most important parts early, the public option ... Then he cut a deal with the pharmaceuticals to say we can't use our buying power to reduce costs. You can argue that what we've done [on healthcare reform] will reduce the deficit in the long run, but it's not what it could have done.

What do you count as wins?

Well, Wall Street reform got stronger over the months, rather than weaker. Healthcare was a partial win. I would count it as a beginning, not the end, but a beginning. The stimulus package was still a win. The National Labor Relations Board is at least functioning. The Department of Labor is actually enforcing laws again.

What's your attitude toward 2012? How do you keep Democrats accountable if you're not willing to primary them?

Well, we have been willing to do that, ask Blanche Lincoln. But we've been debating this, just recently. It's actually going to be fun. You'll see us giving less to party structure, and more to our own structure. Let's say we give three-fourths of the recorded money to the party structure or to the candidate, what do we have the day after Election Day?



Handshakes? Smiles?

Maybe. But you won't see that [in 2012]. You'll see more of labor's money put into its own structure right now, and less being set aside for candidates and party structure. What you're about to see is, we're going to do a full-time, around the calendar political program that's going to be mobilizing and educating people 12 months a year, 24 months a cycle, as opposed to doing it till Election Day and dismantling it. We're going to keep people in place, and actually make people pay a price [if they don't keep promises]. We'll start running some of our own, in state races.

Can you give me some examples of where? How will all this work?

If I would do that, I'd be preempting my executive council. But it'll be far more expansive than it's been in the past. I think you'll see us spending our precious resources to build our structure to hold them accountable. And help them. Because if we're able to educate and mobilize year round, we're able to help them on issues.

That's a big frustration with OFA, some people wanted to organize around issues and they say they were told not to.

Well, I think a lot of people don't want to be pushed. But they won't have that option now, because we're going to educate and mobilize year round. We're going to try to become deeper and wider at the same time. [To plan the April 4 rallies] we put 60-something groups together to capture this moment, and how we turn this moment into a movement -- civil rights groups, church groups, environmental groups, MoveOn, Planned Parenthood -- we all decided to start working together. We're going to try to get back on every campus out there, start a debate about how we change the country, how we change the economy. We're bringing young people in and not saying, here's what we can do for you, but tell us what you need us to do for you? We're working on fair treatment for day laborers, for home care workers -- supporting legislation that can at least set a floor for them. It's not us going in anymore and saying, "Here's our model."


By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2012 Elections Barack Obama The Labor Movement