TOPICS > Politics

AFL-CIO’s Trumka: No American Should Face Choice Between Rights, Job

March 3, 2011 at 6:35 PM EST
Judy Woodruff talks to Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, a voluntary federation of 57 U.S. and international labor unions. Many AFL-CIO members would be affected by pending state-level legislation that would cut collective-bargaining rights for public employees.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, public employee unions face a moment of truth about demands, concessions and rights, as the war over benefits and collective bargaining plays out in Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey and elsewhere.

The latest flash point: Trenton, N.J. More than 12,000 off-duty and retired police officers and firefighters gathered outside the Statehouse today. They rallied in opposition to Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed changes to pensions and benefits for many public workers.

In Ohio yesterday, workers gathered as the Republican-controlled state Senate passed a measure that would restrict the collective bargaining rights of all unions. Known as Senate Bill 5, it would affect roughly 350,000 teachers, university professors, firefighters, police officers and other public employees. The bill would ban strikes by public workers and penalize those who participate in walkouts.

Automatic pay raises would disappear and future wage increases would be based on merit, not seniority. Unionized workers could not negotiate on health care, sick time or pension benefits.

It’s one of a number of measures backed by Republican governors in several states that challenge the very notion of traditional bargaining with public sector unions.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich praised the vote, which still must be approved by the Statehouse, saying, “This is a major step forward in correcting the imbalance between taxpayers and the government unions that work for them.”

In Wisconsin, where Senate Democrats fled the state two weeks ago to avoid a vote on a similar bill, the deadlock remains. Reports said both sides are talking about a compromise.

But Gov. Scott Walker insisted again this week on “Meet the Press” that the state must pass a bill to curb collective bargaining to close a deficit between now and 2013.

DAVID GREGORY, “Meet The Press”: I asked you a more specific question, which is, what’s wrong with collective bargaining?

GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R-Wis.): Well, for us, it’s — it’s about the fact that again, as a local official, I can tell you personally, time and time again, because of collective bargaining when we had tough budgets in the past when I was at the county presiding as a C.O. there, I tried to do modest changes in pension. I tried to do modest changes in health care.

In fact, one year, I literally tried to do a 35-hour workweek to try and avoid massive layoffs and furloughs, and the union said, forget it. Embodied, emboldened by the fact that they had collective bargaining agreements, they said, go ahead. Literally lay off 400 or 500 people. And to me, laying off people in this economy is just completely unacceptable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Indiana has also had its share of union battles. Statehouse Democrats there are preventing action on labor and education bills they oppose which would restrict some bargaining rights.

Today, when most House Democrats skipped a floor session, House Speaker Brian Bosma said he was ready to start issuing fines and formal censures against them.

BRIAN BOSMA (R), Indiana House speaker: I would not want my name listed in the clerk’s records of the Indiana House, in the House journal, for posterity that will very clearly describe the actions that have been taken and the cost to the taxpayer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So far, the most contentious fights have been between labor unions, who tend to back Democrats, and Republican governors and legislators.

But many more states are asking public sector workers to pay more toward their health benefits and pensions, including some led by Democratic governors.

One late-breaking development in Wisconsin: Gov. Walker announced this afternoon that he plans to start laying off state employees tomorrow unless there’s an agreement.

Well, we talk about some pivotal questions facing labor now with its most prominent leader. He is Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, a voluntary federation of 57 national and international labor unions, many of them subject to the changes outlined in our tape piece.

We invited governors from half-a-dozen states, including Wisconsin and Ohio, to participate in tonight’s discussion. All declined our invitation for now.

So, Rich Trumka, thank you very much for being with us.

RICHARD TRUMKA, AFL-CIO: Judy, thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But let’s start with this announcement today from Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin that he’s ready to send out those layoff notices unless there’s some kind of an agreement. Is that a price worth paying? I mean, he was suggesting there that unions would rather see people laid off than make small concessions.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, first of all, it’s the most outrageous thing that he’s done.

You heard him say that laying off was something we shouldn’t do in today’s economy, and yet, he’s putting this choice to those workers in Wisconsin: Either give up your rights, or get laid off. Give up your job.

Now, no American should be put in that position. This isn’t about the economics, Judy. They’ve already agreed — the unions have already agree to the exact concessions that he’s asked for. This is about him trying to take away the rights of workers to come together to bargain for a middle-class life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Gov. Walker’s argument — and I know you have heard him make it — is that, with collective bargaining, he says unions have been able to, in effect, bleed the state of money that it doesn’t have, that it’s happened over years and years. Previous governors haven’t done anything about it, and he said it has got to stop.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, quite frankly, I have listened to him several times, and I never heard him explain why he wants to do away with the workers’ rights to come together to bargain for a middle-class life.

But let me give you these facts. The five states in the United States that prohibit collective bargaining by public employees, they have a cumulative debt of $222 billion. Collective bargaining didn’t cause that.

Look, this isn’t about public employees. This was caused by the crisis and the recession that we have. We have 15 million people out of work. Put them back to work, they pay taxes, the economy starts to hum, and all of us start to do that, live better.

And this governor, instead of creating the jobs that he was elected to do, is now trying to destroy more middle-class jobs that will hurt the Wisconsin economy even more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You know, Rich Trumka, the way he and other governors frame this, though, is they’re saying, this is an argument between all of the citizens of the state, in this case Wisconsin, versus the public workers. And he said, when it comes down to that balance, public workers should be willing to give some.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, you know, they have been.

He asked for cuts, and they agreed to all the cuts that he asked for. Remember this. Those public employees are citizens as well. This is a concerted campaign by a number of Republican governors to vilify public employees.

They first — this governor, Walker, first said that Wisconsin employees are paid too much. Well, now we know from study after study that the public employees are paid less than private employees. And then he said it’s about the pension plan. And then we find out that his pension plan is nearly fully funded, 100 percent of assets versus liabilities.

And then he says, well, I need these cuts. And they agreed to them. And then, again, the most outrageous thing that he did was say that to these employees, I’m going to lay you off unless you give up your rights.

Now, no American should be subject to that. We ought to be doing more to build the middle-class, not less. And what he’s trying to do is take away nurses, firefighters, EMTs, snow plow drivers, their ability to come together to make their way into the middle class.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if his argument and the argument — we had Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana on the program the other night — and, in effect, they’re saying that collective bargaining is bargaining over the public’s money. It’s not — it’s not money — we heard — I heard – Gov. Daniels said to us in an interview the other night, he said, it’s not money that belongs to an individual or a company. It’s the taxpayers’ money, and so there’s something out of whack here to be bargaining over that.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Of course, but you have to have quality employees.

Take John Kasich. He says everybody has to share. When he came in, he gave his senior staff a 30 percent increase in wages, and then he turns around to public employees and says, now, I want to strip you, not only of the pensions you have been promised and the health care that you have been promised, but I want to take away your ability to negotiate for those.

Look, in a modern society, in a global economy, the companies that succeed are the companies that sit down with their employees, and they say, we have a problem. Let’s solve it. The old way of doing things, the Kasich way, the Walker way, is saying, employees, you have nothing to offer. Shut up and sit down and accept what we give you.

And the last point I would make about that, Judy, is that, remember something. Public employees are taxpayers as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me — I want to pick up on that, because, you know, making that point, are you — how worried are you that, if Governor Walker wins this argument in Wisconsin, that there could — that it just builds and makes stronger the argument against unions in these other states? I mean, we already see this.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Look, this isn’t an argument about unions. This isn’t about unions.

This is about a governor taking away the rights of his employees to come together to bargain for a middle-class way of life. And if he takes that away, imagine what the country would be like if there were no unions.

Gov. Walker could come in one day and say, oh, in order to get — to balance the budget, we’re going to start paying — employers can pay women less for what — the same work that men do, or we’re going to do away with overtime, or we’re going to do away with the age limit.

Those are the kind of things that are at stake, because teachers right now, you know what they bargain for? They bargain for smaller class size. You know what police bargain for? They bargain for equipment that will save their lives out on the street. They want to take that away from them.

Now, a police officer knows what they need. A firefighter knows what they need. And a teacher bargaining for a smaller class size is trying to bargain for all of us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, do you view Wisconsin as a kind of Waterloo for these issues that you care so deeply about?

RICHARD TRUMKA: You know, any time that they’re taking any employee, any worker’s rights away, and saying to them, as Gov. Walker did, you have to give up either your job or your rights, we take that seriously, and we’re going to stand with them and fight, or what Gov. Kasich did.

Now, what they did in Ohio was corrupt, what that committee did. In the middle of a vote, they didn’t have the votes, so they removed somebody from the committee. Now, that is a corrupt way to run government. If you can’t win, you will remove people from the government? That’s how they passed that bill.

And I will say this to you. We will stand with those employees. They want to fight for their rights. They want to fight for the middle class. They want to fight for the opportunity to get to the middle class. And we’re going to be with them every step of the way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me finally ask you about the view of Americans broadly, public — workers who have been hearing this argument. And they hear that when you put the package together, public workers, they may be on balance when it comes to pay, but when you add in the benefits, the pensions, the health care benefits, that it’s a richer package than what other workers may get across the aboard.

So, what do you say to American — to private-sector workers who are watching right now who think public workers get a better deal?

RICHARD TRUMKA: So, in some cases, they might, but, in most cases, they don’t.

Take Wisconsin. If you have a college degree in Wisconsin, you get paid 25 percent less than people with a college degree in the private sector. But here’s what I would say to them. In America, we have never, as a country, looked up and said, that person over there has a pension. Let’s take it away from them.

What we as a country have always said is, they don’t have a pension. Let’s figure out a way to get them one. We’re the richest nation on the face of the earth. Corporate America had record profits. It’s not that we can’t afford this. We need a shared sacrifice. Workers have shared. They have given up their jobs. They have lost their homes. They can’t go anymore. It’s time for to us come together and create jobs, so that we can create the America that all of us love and have it revered around the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rich Trumka, the president of AFL-CIO, thank you very much for talking with us.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we do.

And, once again, our invitations to Republican governors and others remain open. And we will bring you that perspective at a later date.