Trumka: American Dream ‘Is Elusive’ for Many

WASHINGTON—Achieving the American Dream “is still elusive” for millions of U.S. workers – low-paid and middle class, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says.

In a wide-ranging interview/breakfast with selected reporters, hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, the 64-year-old leader said the fed will spend its convention in September in Los Angeles in intensive sessions with unionists and their progressive allies figuring out new ways organized labor can help workers achieve their dreams.

And then the thousands of unionists at that confab will take those lessons back home and teach them to others, he told reporters at the August 29 session.

As a result, the convention will “not be business as usual, because of the challenges we face as working people,” he added.

Trumka discussed the state of U.S. workers, not just the state of U.S. unions, at the breakfast, after reiterating that organized labor faces a crisis due to declining numbers and concentrated and vicious opposition from business and from many politicians as well.  And its problems are linked to those of workers overall, he added.

Federal data and other analysis back up Trumka’s comments about the crisis facing workers, organized and unorganized:

• Half of the jobs lost during the Great Recession were middle-class family supporting jobs.  Only 2% of those created since the recession ended fall in that category, where the income is around the U.S. median of $38,000 yearly.

• Unemployment is still above 7%, depressing wages and hiring, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

• Wages have fallen for the bottom 70% of the U.S. workforce since the crash hit in 2007, even during the subsequent weak recovery.

• The union movement, which in the past had enough members and enough clout to push up wages not just for its members but for all workers, now includes only one of every nine workers nationwide as members, and one of every 14 private sector workers.
“The trend in income has been for more and more to go to the top 1%, and none of us” on the progressive side – neither labor nor environmentalists nor womens’ rights groups nor immigrant rights groups nor anyone else – “are large enough to make a change in that.  It’ll take all of us to have a shared economy to have shared prosperity for all.”

Trumka said unions themselves are to blame for part of deteriorating density.

“I’ll point the finger at us,” he said.  “We did not keep pace with the change in the economy, with the political environment and with young people.  Things are different than they were 30 or 40 years ago,” when unions represented at least one-fourth of all private sector workers.

“But some of the problem is external,” he stated.  “Political parties came after us,” though he did not single out either the Republicans or Democrats, as did corporations.  “And the Supreme Court says money is speech, letting corporations work their will” in political campaigns, he added.

To counter that, the convention will recast the labor movement to bring in allies, both among the organized and among other progressive groups, who will be attending.

Those groups include environmentalists, gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender groups, civil rights organizations, immigrant rights groups, and womens’ rights groups.  He turned aside a question about whether Organizing For America – the successor to Democratic President Barack Obama’s huge volunteer campaign organization – is among them.  OFA and labor will find themselves working together, Trumka said.

All the other groups, along with rank-and-file unionists and academics participated in federation-sponsored nationwide listening sessions in the run-up to the convention, tackling how to remake the labor movement.

“We’re going to create a process where we can sit down and talk, and then not go our separate ways,” he added.  In bringing outside groups into the labor movement, “I don’t want it to be a case of ‘my issues’ and ‘your issues.’  I want it to be seamless.”

“We said to them” – both the unionists and the outside groups – “tell us what we need to be, tell us what we need to change.”

On other issues, Trumka said:

• Labor “made some mistakes” in its lobbying for the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health care revision law.  The prime one was not insisting on retaining the “public option” as a way to bring health insurance competition to the “90 percent” of local health care markets served by only one or two insurers.

Pushed about open complaints by several union presidents that the Affordable Care Act could result in destruction of multi-employer health care plans, Trumka said the federation is in constant contact with the White House – including a meeting two days before – to iron out problems there and in other areas of the act.

Another unintended consequence “that’s an issue” is of employers cutting back full-time workers to 29-1/2 hours a week to escape paying health insurance, he warned.

• Said labor would emphasize governors’ and state legislative races in next year’s election, particularly those governors who have trashed workers.  Trumka singled out GOP Govs. Scott Walker (Wis.), Rick Snyder (Mich.) and John Kasich (Ohio).  He also said labor would play in some states where it hasn’t in the past, notably Texas.

“It’s a big state,” Trumka said with a grin, adding seriously that it’s the only state in the nation without fire codes either statewide or countywide, threatening workers and lives.  “And it’s a majority-minority state, with the minorities denied a voice.”

“But we plan to hold everybody in politics accountable – and that’s in both parties,” Trumka emphasized.

• Said he expected stronger enforcement of labor laws and regulations from new U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.  Trumka especially looks forward to Perez stepping up the department’s efforts against misclassification of workers as “independent contractors,” which began under former Secretary Hilda Solis.

“I think he’ll be more aggressive and focused than Solis,” Trumka said of Perez, a former Maryland state labor commissioner.  “He understands more how to enforce laws and to run a large agency” than did Solis, a former U.S. House member.

• Reiterated labor’s strong support for comprehensive immigration reform, and said a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. – 7.5 million workers and 3.5 million kids – is absolutely necessary within that.  “When they are able to come out of the shadows,” DOL will “ be able to come out and enforce their rights.  And that’s important for all of us.”

• Said Democratic President Barack Obama’s decision on whom to name as the new head of the Federal Reserve is important to workers.  The Fed has two goals written into law, Trumka noted: Controlling inflation and promoting full employment.  But Fed chiefs for the last several decades have ignored the employment goal, he said.

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer