TOPICS > Economy

Labor’s ‘Bulldog’ Trumka Challenged by Dwindling Ranks, Public Perception

October 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka works to protect organized labor from the excesses of big business, he faces dwindling ranks, splits among union groups, and diminished public support. Paul Solman reports.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a new leader takes over the country’s largest union organization.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman has our profile. It’s part of his ongoing reporting on making sense of economic and financial news.

RICHARD TRUMKA, president, AFL-CIO: The American labor movement is right here with you today. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with you for as long as it takes and with whatever it takes.

PAUL SOLMAN: New AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka at a recent protest of teacher layoffs in Washington, D.C.

RICHARD TRUMKA: And it is time that we win together!

PAUL SOLMAN: As the new head of the labor movement, Trumka needs to move workers old and new, and reverse a decades-long thinning of the ranks. Compounding the problem, divisions within the movement itself.

Service Employees International Union head Andy Stern, seen here in his trademark purple shirt, formed a rival federation just four years ago. In the late ’60s, age 19, Trumka followed his father, who died of black lung disease, and grandfather down into the coal mines of Pennsylvania.

But college and law degrees took him to the United Mine Workers. In 1982, he became its aggressive president.

MAN: Richard L. Trumka!

PAUL SOLMAN: The strike he led in 1989 against Pittston Coal in West Virginia became a symbol of new labor activism.

Trumka became president John Sweeney’s right-hand man at the AFL-CIO 14 years ago, making his name as a bulldog against corporate overreach.

RICHARD TRUMKA: I will stop demonizing big business just as soon as they put their country before their profits and they put their workers before their greed. I will stop at that point.

PAUL SOLMAN: Three weeks after his election as president, we sat down with Trumka at union headquarters.

The Wall Street Journal describes you as an old-school bullying leader known for your toughness, short fuse, and gruff sense of humor.

That accurate?

RICHARD TRUMKA: Look at me. Don’t I look like I’m one of those guys?

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, you don’t look gruff at the moment.

RICHARD TRUMKA: I sort of expect that from the Wall Street, and with some of them, I guess I have been rough, because we have taken on Wall Street, because we think they have created a lot of the problems that the country is facing right now.

We think CEO pay, for instance, out of control. We think the risks that they took were unreasonable. And we’re asked to pick up the price. And, if that’s their description of me, that’s fine. Now, but there’s also this warm and fuzzy side of me, I guess, too.

PAUL SOLMAN: Warm and fuzzy, indeed. Check out his acceptance speech at the AFL-CIO Convention.

RICHARD TRUMKA: From my first day working in the coal mine, to my last day as international president, I have always been in awe of the courage and the compassion and the unbreakable solidarity of my UMWA brothers and sisters. And I want you to know that, just as you have always stood by me, I will always…

Organized labor's challenges

PAUL SOLMAN: But Trumka will need all the support he can muster, emotional and otherwise, given the plight of organized labor.

Do you think you may be overmatched? -- 1949, you were born. Unionization in America 35 percent -- '68, when you first go into the coal mines, it's down to 28 percent. Now, you're taking over as president -- 12.5 percent of the work force is unionized. That's 16 million workers.

Why shouldn't we think that that's a long-term decline that is irreversible?

RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, in the last election, we were about 25 percent of the vote. That's a pretty relevant group.

Our own movement bears some of the blame for leaving people of color, leaving women behind. So, we will be reaching out to them and trying to build a bigger following. Do I think were overmatched? No.

I think that the American people -- this is our time, and we will take advantage of the opportunities that are in this crisis right now to build an economy that really does work for everybody.

PAUL SOLMAN: Trumka is trying hard to change labor's image as male, pale, and stale, and bring in new recruits -- one focus, grassroots mobilization, as at Working America, the AFL-CIO's three-million member organization for those with jobs at workplaces that aren't unionized.

RICHARD TRUMKA: One thing I would ask you to do is think about ways that you can help us reconnect with younger workers.

CHRISTIAN NORTON, Working America: Facebook and MySpace and Twitter, they're very large Web sites. They have a lot of people on them. And they are a lot of younger audience. So, we try to go to these sites and join the community.

PAUL SOLMAN: The message they are trying to send: Workers of all ages are better off when there are strong unions.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Look, from 1946 to 1973, productivity in this country doubled, and so did incomes. It was the greatest distribution of wealth of any country. That's when the middle class was built.

PAUL SOLMAN: That was the famous Great Compression, as one historian calls it, right?

RICHARD TRUMKA: And the interesting thing is, '73 to date, productivity has continued up, but wages have stagnated.

And, so, workers have had to go through a number of strategies to try to compete. First, we worked more hours. Then we sent more people into the work force. And then we got a second or a third job. And then we started borrowing on our 401(k)s. And then the high-tech bubble busted, and then we started borrowing on our houses.

Look, the system that the financial economy created has failed. It's failed. And the American public is saying, we need something different.

We speak for those people who say, we want an economy that really works for everybody.

PAUL SOLMAN: Why, then, is there so much antagonism towards, so much skepticism about unions? If we do a piece like this, the e-mails come in: Unions are just protecting people's jobs. The old term used to be "featherbedding" -- that is, you know, taking it easy, while drawing the paycheck. They have all these rules.

Those are the e-mails we get.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, who do you get them from? Our companies are the most efficient.

Go into the construction industry. Our members are the best trained, the most efficient out there. Go into manufacturing. We're the safest places. If you go in the mines, union mines are the safest. They're the most productive. They're the best mines out there.

Our members make more money, and our employers make more money. They're doing a pretty good job.

Lobbying for a card check bill

PAUL SOLMAN: On Capitol Hill, labor is lobbying for a card check or majority sign-up bill, in which all it takes to form a union is more than half of a firm's workers authorizing one by signing a card.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Currently, under the system right now, if 100 percent of the workers go and sign a card or a petition and they tell their employer, we want a union at this place, it's the employer who gets to decide whether they will or they won't.

He can say: I don't care how many people signed it. I want to demand an election. And then the intimidation, the harassment, and the firings start.

PAUL SOLMAN: But the argument is that it actually allows unions to intimidate people who are going to sign up.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, wait a second. Lets look at the evidence on that, OK? There's been no evidence of that.

You know, over the life -- since 1935, there have been less than 30 cases total where unions have intimidated a worker, less than 30 cases. Last year, 30,000 workers got fired in one year alone. You think there's a reason to change? I'm asking -- no, I'm asking you the question.

Do you think 30,000 workers ought to get fired for exercising their rights? Do you think that?

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, no, of course. But here's the case made by Trumka's big business opponent, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Card check could put government regulators in charge of private business decisions," and, thus, "business flexibility is limited at a time in our history when it is needed most."

Furthermore, says the Chamber, "Card check would impose harsh new penalties on businesses, but not on unions, for violations during the union recognition process."

Whichever side you're on, though, there seems like likelihood that card check will pass anytime soon. But Trumka seems undaunted about its prospects, and those of the other big part of his agenda, health care.

At a recent Capitol Hill meeting, he was briefed on lobbying efforts for a bill that includes government insurance for all, the so-called public option.

Unions fight for health care reform

ART PULASKI, California Labor Federation: We have got a couple of wavering Blue Dogs. We're going to do a little bit more work with them and we're going to move them over. So, you're going to have all of California, by the time we're done.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Can I hold you to that? Can I quote you on that?

ART PULASKI: You can quote me on that. We have got a couple of dancers. We're going to do some more dancing.

RICHARD TRUMKA: In every collective bargaining agreement, or every dispute with employers, it's over health care.

And 94 percent of the markets -- 94 percent -- are considered highly concentrated. That means one or two or three companies control the price, the quality, and the actual giving of health care in those markets. And the only way you can break that stranglehold is to have a public option, so that people really can go somewhere.

PAUL SOLMAN: But it doesn't -- it looks like it's going to be a real tough haul to get that through, at least as...

RICHARD TRUMKA: Legislation is always a tough haul. When you have vested interests, like the insurance industry and a lot of the health care industry that -- that will hire every lobbyist in town, that will pump in billions of dollars in contributions to the candidates, it's going to be tough. Of course it is.

That's why we haven't done it for 60 years. But we're closer now than we ever were. And we're not allowing those special interests, those that have an interest in keeping the system exactly like it is now, we're not going to let them prevail.

PAUL SOLMAN: It's this sort of faith in the labor movement that has driven the formidable Richard Trumka since he first joined the ranks in 1968. His first term as president of the AFL-CIO runs until 2013.