Union Leaders Discuss State of U.S. Labor as Attacks Rise, Membership Goes Down

As state governments attempt to restrict union rights in states like New Jersey, Ohio and Wisconsin, Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill talk to three major union presidents — Mary Kay Henry, Jim Hoffa and Lee Saunders — about the health of the organized labor movement, the rhetoric of the RNC and the importance of the 2012 election.

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    We look now at the state of organized labor with the leaders of three unions.

    Mary Kay Henry is president of the Service Employees International Union. Jim Hoffa is president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. And Lee Saunders is president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

    And, welcome, all three, to you both to the NewsHour.

    Lee Saunders, let me start with you. On this Labor Day, at a time when too many Americans are out of work, how healthy is organized labor?

    LEE SAUNDERS, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees: Well, we have taken our hits over the past two and three years, especially in the public sector, where we have had very, very right-wing conservative governors steal our voices away from us, take collective bargaining away from us.

    In Wisconsin, Scott Walker limited our right to bargain and limited our right to have a union in that state. John Kasich tried to do the same thing in Ohio, but we were able to beat him back by more than a 2-to-1 margin. What we must do and what we're doing now is we're organizing, we're mobilizing, and we're educating our members.

    This is a very serious election, possibly the most important election that organized labor has been faced with for many, many years. We are under attack like never before, and we have got to fight back.


    And, yet, Mr. Hoffa, here we are in North Carolina, probably the least unionized state in the country. Organized labor has made it clear to the Democrats that they weren't particularly happy about this choice. Are you still unhappy?

    JAMES HOFFA, International Brotherhood of Teamsters: Well, it is what it is. We're here and we're going to participate and play a major role in this campaign and support Barack Obama.

    I think we could have had a better selection. But now that we're here, I mean, we're all into this together. Organized labor is 100 percent behind Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. So I think you're going to see a tremendous turnout here.

    I'm excited about being here. We have a lot of support here. A lot of our Teamsters from this state and other states are here. So you're going to have a good participation. And we're excited about it.


    And, yet, Ms. Henry, union membership is declining. Mr. Saunders mentioned what happened in Wisconsin. He was practically carried in on a — he was praised constantly.

    Wisconsin was a big point at the Republican National Convention last week. Are you a step behind?

  • MARY KAY HENRY, Service Employees International Union:

    I think we have to judge the state of labor by the state of all working people in this country, and that the labor movement is the last line of defense that working people have against the concentration of corporate power, and that when, as labor leaders, we stand up for getting people back to work and making sure that everybody pays their share, fair share, we're going to revitalize the American labor movement, because we're standing up for all working people.


    Lee Saunders, let me come back to Wisconsin, because in that situation, Gov. Walker went after collective bargaining, made changes there. There was a huge recall effort.

    But labor and the Democrats were beat back. Wasn't that a significant setback for organized labor?


    Well, it was a setback.

    But you have got to remember that $60 million went into that state from the outside to help Scott Walker. We had boots on the ground. And we're going to continue to have boots on the ground.

    It was a setback, but we were worn in Wisconsin, AFSCME, 75 years ago, because of patronage and because of disrespect that was shown to state workers.

    We were there 75 years ago. We're there today. And we're going to be there tomorrow. And we have just got to organize like never before. Our folks are excited. And they are frustrated, but they're excited because they understand the importance of this election in November.

    If you heard what was said in that Republican Convention last week, they were attacking labor. They were attacking working families. They were attacking the middle class. We have got to coalesce around with our allies. And we have got to fight back.


    Jim Hoffa, what about that, the Wisconsin situation, where the governor went out of his way to go after organized labor, collective bargaining rights, and yet he prevailed?


    Well, we had a tremendous support. Lee and I were there. We were all in Wisconsin. In Madison, there were hundreds of thousands of people supporting that. So, there's a core there, basically, that we can work on. We think we're going to win that state for Barack Obama.

    But you're right. It was a setback with regard to Scott Walker. And Scott Walker really signifies the worst part of what we're seeing right now. The complete Republican Party has veered to the right. And you can see it in their platform talking about national right-to-work.

    This wasn't true even four years ago, people getting up and basically beating their chest about how they beat unions, whether it's in New Jersey, Ohio, or Wisconsin. We have never seen that before. I mean, the rhetoric was so shrill coming out of that campaign that there's no idea — there is a war on workers. And they are coming after us. And it's going to mobilize our members.

    Our members feel that what's going on right now is, they're out to take us out. And they have said that. And they have unlimited money. They're coming after us. And it's going to mobilize our members to make sure we win this November.


    Except that here in — you're here in Charlotte because you support this Democratic president. You believe he should be reelected, yet the unions are spending a lot less money this year on Democratic campaigns and a lot less on this convention.

    How do you square those two things, when you know that — if you feel that you are under attack by Republicans?


    Well, we have more members contributing to political action than ever before in our unions' history. And I think together we're all spending as much as we have in past elections because we think our future is at stake. The economic well-being of all working people is at stake in this election.

    And so as Jim and Lee have said, we're going to put unprecedented numbers of workers on the ground to reach out to union members, their families, their neighbors.

    We're reaching out in Latino and African-American communities especially because the Republicans want to suppress that vote in ways. And we're not going to have it. We're going to make sure that we win in November for the champion for working people, President Barack Obama.


    Lee Saunders, how do you justify that? Do you just dispute that less money is being spent?


    No, I think that we're all engaged. Every single union is engaged.

    And you have got to take Charlotte out of the picture, out of the equation.




    It's over. As Jim said, it's over.

    This is a convention. After the convention, we're going to be working every single day, knocking on doors, making those phone calls, not only within union households, but we're going to be talking with communities and talking to our coalition partners. We're going to be spending resources, but we're going to have more people and more boots on the ground.

    The AFL-CIO is going to have 400,000 people, activists on the ground. AFSCME is Increasing its number from 40,000 to 80,000. The Teamsters are doing the same thing. SEIU is doing the same thing. Our engagement is greater this year, and it's going to grow like never before.


    But what about the larger argument? I want to ask all three of you.

    I will direct it to you, Jim Hoffa.

    The larger argument that, in these tight economic times, the public has the right to expect employees of organized labor to take the same cuts that the private sector has taken? That was one of the arguments made in Wisconsin, made in Ohio and make in other states.


    But it wasn't really true in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, there was a small deficit, and the unions were willing to sit down and make that up. And he said, I'm not interested in that.

    Scott Walker began by talking about the fact, he said, well, there's a deficit. We have to get rid of collective bargaining. But that really wasn't in it. So when they called his bluff and said we will sit down and negotiate with you right now, that isn't what they did. And then he says, no, I'm not interested in negotiating with you. I want to take out collective bargaining.

    The real reason is, they realized the backbone of the Democratic Party, the people that oppose them, is organized labor. We're the ones that have the boots on the ground. We have money. We have organization. And they have really got to take us out. Whether — it's not about the budget. It's not about pensions.

    Whether it's in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, it's all the same thing. We are targeted because we are the backbone of the progressive movement in this country.


    And, Mary Kay Henry, an extension of that same question. The public often looks at union members and says, wait a minute. Why can't they — especially public service employees, why can't they accept some of the same cuts that private sector workers have had to…


    Well, I think more and more members of the public are saying public service workers are the last remaining middle-class jobs in our community.

    And that's why tens of thousands of people poured into the Madison Rotunda in and said, wait a second. We're not going to allow this governor to strip away the middle-class standard of living that we have achieved in this state. And we agree that we need to do is reach out to private-sector workers and lift their wages up.

    And tax policy has to change that. Workers being able to freely form unions has to change that. And investing in a public education system where everybody has an equal opportunity is the way that we can get the middle class growing again.


    Lee Saunders, if I can ask you to answer Judy's question, but also, how do you justify to your members who are feeling anxiety, like so many Americans, that the economy is not doing well that they should stay on the same horse?


    Well, let me say this. When we have had to sacrifice, we have sacrificed.

    But we cannot accept the total burden. And that's what's happening right now. Jimmy was right. They are coming after us because we are organized. We have power. We have strength.

    This is a pure power play. Make no mistake about it.

    The top 1 percent in this country want to have more power. They want to have more wealth. And they want to do it at the expense of the 99 percent who are trying to play by the rules every single day. Those are the folks that we have got to mobilize and organize for this election.


    But it's the 99 percent who are suffering under the current status quo.


    The 99 percent is suffering because of the policies of George Bush and because of the policies that John Boehner and Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want to push forward. And that's what we have got to stop.


    Lee Saunders…


    And I think that the 99 percent see that the president saved the auto industry, that DREAM Act students are going to have a chance not to be deported in order to finish college, that more jobs are being created under this administration than before. It's — there is progress.


    Mary Kay Henry, Lee Saunders, Jim Hoffa, we thank you, all three. Appreciate it.

    And you can visit Our Vote 2012 Map Center to find out more about labor union membership in each state.