President of the AFL-CIO Richard Trumka
HPR: Have recent divisions in the labor community hampered labor’s ability to wield influence in Washington?
Richard Trumka: There’s two kinds of unity: there’s unity of name and unity of purpose. Unity of purpose is the most important thing. When it came to electing Barack Obama, we had unity of purpose. When it came to health care reform, we had unity of purpose. When it came to the Employee Free Choice Act, we had unity of purpose. When it came to re-regulating the financial economy, we had unity of purpose. On all the big issues, we’re still in the same direction. It would be better if we were together, by the way, but politically I don’t think it has hurt us.
HPR: With regard to the Employee Free Choice Act, how satisfied are you with the bill and the process of getting it through Congress?
RT: Well first of all, it’s been too slow. Wages have stagnated for 30 years, and in a consumer-driven economy, the less people have wages, the more the economy stagnates. The best way to get wages spread fairly is through collective bargaining, so the longer we go without that, the harder it is for the economy to recover. I think we’ll end up with a bill that is very good and that will give us the tools we need to be able to organize people in a fair and responsible way and give us higher penalties so that employers can’t just scoff at the law, take a slap on the wrist, and go on their merry way.
HPR: Could you talk a bit about what “card check” is? It’s a term that gets used a lot, and rarely defined.
RT: Right now the employer gets to decide how the employees get a union. You can have 100% of employees say they want a union, but the employer can say, “I don’t care, I want a secret-ballot election.” And they use that secret-ballot election to delay and to intimidate and harass and even fire union supporters in an effort to erode union support. Now what card check would do is reverse the situation back to the way the law was originally intended. It would put the decision in the hands of the employees, so that if 51% of employees say they want a union card, the employer is required to give it to them.
HPR: Given that card check has been such a controversial part of the current legislation, do you think that it’s likely to remain in the final product?
RT: A version of it, yes.
HPR: Under Hilda Solis, the Department of Labor has been making a more proactive effort at enforcement of labor laws than under the previous administration. Has the AFL-CIO noticed a change in the regulatory environment?
RT: Oh, considerably. First of all, the approach to everything is completely different. She understands that workers have rights and she wants to make sure that all workers’ rights are enforced. Her budget includes more inspectors, more people who are able to protect those rights. She’s enforcing the Fair Labor Standards Act, which ensures that people get fair wages whether or not they have a union. It’s a night and day difference between Hilda Solis and the previous administration.
HPR: Over the past 40 years, labor has experienced a drop in private-sector union participation. Has the labor movement changed as unions become increasingly populated with public-sector employees?
RT: Right now we have about a 50-50 split between public and private employees in the AFL-CIO. We’ve always worked together, and by us being together under the same umbrella, we’re able to educate each other. Public workers need a union as much as anybody, and they help out a significant amount.
HPR: After the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, what are your priorities going forward?
RT: Jobs, jobs, and more jobs. It doesn’t do you any good if the place you’ve organized gets shut down. So we’ll be working on that. We’ll be working on re-regulating the financial economy to get them back in check. We’ll be working on pension reform to make sure that pensions are protected from some of the excesses that caused people to go bankrupt and lose money. Immigration is an important issue for us, too. And we still have a long way to go on health care reform.
HPR: Some have suggested that the recent Citizens United decision will allow labor to play a larger role in elections. Others have said it gives power mainly to larger corporations. How do you feel about the decision?
RT: It’s a really bad decision. We didn’t want the results that came out of that. We had challenged a specific provision that referred to the sixty days right before an election. But our participation is mostly at the grassroots level anyway. That decision made corporate America stronger. They can flood the airwaves using shareholders’ money without the shareholders having any say about it. So I think it’s a bad decision and bad for our democracy.
Alex Copulsky ’10 is the Assistant Managing Editor Emeritus. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo Credit: Bill Burke/Page One