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Richard Trumka, who was at the helm of the nation's largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, for more than two decades, died on Thursday. Paul Solman reports, and Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under the Clinton administration, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss Trumka's life and legacy.
Now: the loss of a giant player in the world of organized labor.
Richard Trumka was at the helm of the nation's largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, for more than two decades. He died today.
Paul Solman begins our look at his impact.
The American labor movement is right here with you today. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with you for as long as it takes!
Richard Trumka, unswerving advocate for working women and men, ally of Democratic lawmakers and presidents.
He was always there. He was an American worker, always fighting for working people, protecting their wages, their safety, their pensions, and their ability to build a middle-class life.
Trumka grew up the son and grandson of miners and followed his family into the coal mines of Pennsylvania. College and law degrees helped take him to the top at the United Mine Workers.
From there, he moved to the AFL-CIO, still, as always, a fiery and passionate presence.
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.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
I will stop at that point.
Trumka has spent his career trying to reverse the waning influence of unions.
But since the miners strike he led in 1989, union membership in America has dropped by nearly half to some 10 percent of the work force. An opponent of free trade, at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Trumka came out against the proposed TPP trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It was never approved.
TPP is a very bad agreement. Covers 40 percent of the world's economy, and it will cost us jobs.
More recently, Trumka made waves by supporting workplace vaccine requirements, a position many unions oppose.
Forever marching to his own drummer, Richard Trumka died of a heart attack today at the age of 72.
And now we take a closer look at the life and legacy of Richard Trumka with someone who knew him well.
Robert Reich served as secretary of labor from 1993 until 1997 under President Bill Clinton. He's an author and he teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.
Robert Reich, welcome back to the "NewsHour."
And we're so sorry for your loss.
Judy, it's really a loss for America, the loss for the labor movement, loss for American workers.
Rich Trumka really embodied the best of the labor movement, in the sense of protecting workers and understanding that workers needed more bargaining power in our system, not only in our particular companies, but also in our political system, if they were going to do better.
What made him the leader that he was?
I think it was a combination of his tenacity and genuine passion.
You know, Washington is filled with some very good people and some pretty cynical people. But Rich Trumka really did understand the plight of working people in America. He never forgot his origins. And he felt it deeply.
Every time you were with him, every time I was with him, I understood where his passion came from. It came from his heart. It came from his background. He knew that working people in America were being, let's face it, shafted by many, many large companies.
As we just reported, Robert Reich, at the same time, we know that the number of American working people represented by labor, by organized labor has shrunk. It's something like 10 percent. It used to be much more than that.
How did he deal with that? And it clearly had to be enormously frustrating to him.
I'm sure it was. And he said to me a number of times he shared the frustrations.
I think the way he dealt with it was to push as hard as he could. But he was, Judy, facing the headwinds of corporate America that was determined to shrink and bust unions. I mean, look what Amazon did in Bessemer, Alabama, just a few months ago.
The National Labor Relations Board just found that Amazon had violated the law. But it doesn't matter. It's like a — it's like a kind of slap on the wrist for many of these large companies. Clearly, we need — if we care about American workers, if we care about wages — and the only way that workers are going to get real wage increases that really last is if they have more bargaining power.
If we care, then we are going to support legislation that strengthens unions.
And what more did he think needed to be done that wasn't being done, that was — that kept seeing organized labor lose, rather than win?
One of the most important aspects of reform to Rich Trumka is embodied in what's now on the Hill called the PRO Act.
It increases penalties on employers for violating labor laws. And, remember, we're talking about a law, the basic law, from 1935, the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act, but with increasing frequency and boldness and, as I said, because the — violating the law is almost the cost of doing business.
Businesses are making it harder for people to organize. A lot of surveys show that about 60 percent of American workers would like to have a union if they could. But there has been a tremendous decrease in the number of workers. In the 1950s, about a third of America's private sector workers were unionized. It gave them the power to get better wages and working conditions.
Today, it's now down to 6.2 percent of private sector workers unionized. That really eliminates most of their bargaining power. That's what Rich Trumka really was concerned about.
And if you had to sum up what his message would be, if he had known he had so little time left, what would it be?
He would say over and over again, in union, there is strength.
Robert Reich, we thank you for joining us.
And, again, we're sorry for your — the loss of your friend.
Thank you, Judy.
Watch the Full Episode
Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
Judy Woodruff is a senior correspondent and the former anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour. She has covered politics and other news for five decades at NBC, CNN and PBS.
Lorna Baldwin is an Emmy and Peabody award winning producer at the PBS NewsHour. In her two decades at the NewsHour, Baldwin has crisscrossed the US reporting on issues ranging from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan to tsunami preparedness in the Pacific Northwest to the politics of poverty on the campaign trail in North Carolina. Farther afield, Baldwin reported on the problem of sea turtle nest poaching in Costa Rica, the distinctive architecture of Rotterdam, the Netherlands and world renowned landscape artist, Piet Oudolf.
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