Trumka: Media Miss The Story Of Struggling Americans

WASHINGTON —U.S. mass media “miss the everyday story” of struggling Americans – employed and unemployed – AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says.

In a wide interview/press conference with Mike Allen, White House bureau chief for Politico, Trumka also blasted Republicans in Congress for letting 1.3 million jobless workers lose their extended unemployment benefits on Dec. 28, with another 1.9 million facing the same fate in the next six months.  (A video is available on Politico’s website.)

And that’s a symptom of the uncovered story, Trumka added.

Trumka spoke as the labor federation heads into an era of change.  The AFL-CIO has opened itself up to non-union workers, and aims to enlist them through Working America, its affiliate for people who can’t or won’t join union locals, among other methods.  It’s also organizing car wash workers, domestic workers, health care workers, taxi drivers and others, in a “very very labor intensive” effort, he told Allen.

And, Trumka said, labor aims to envelop members from and lead a coalition of “75 to 80” like-minded progressive groups – women’s groups, Hispanic-rights groups, the NAACP and others – to educate citizens and politicians on the economy, then hold politicians accountable for their action, or inaction, to help workers and their families.

“We’re saying to them (the other groups), ‘Let’s sit down and all of us try to create a solution,’” rather than presenting a plan to help workers and asking them to agree to it, Trumka explained.  Labor wants to “bring them in to change the political climate, the economic climate and the legislative climate.”

But the uncovered story, he added, is what has happened to workers.

“It’s not a campaign issue.  It’s about feeding them,” Trumka said of the end of the jobless benefits.  “We’ll make a list” of who supports and opposes the benefits “because they (workers) get left behind and they suffer and everybody suffers.”

The GOP-run House refused to include a jobless benefits extension in the budget blueprint for the next two years that Congress passed and Democratic President Obama signed this week.

“People without a job are struggling to find a job,” Trumka said.  “People with a job are worried about how long they’ll have a job.  People who are getting older are worried about retirement,” because 401(k)s, which replaced pensions, have declined.

“We talk about a 55-year-old man who just got laid off and doesn’t know where he’ll go.  We talk about a 22-year-old woman who graduates at the top of her college class and can’t get a job in her chosen field,” but has to take fast food work instead.

But when organized labor takes the stories to lawmakers – even if the media don’t cover them – the response is big plans, but then “they get abstract,” he said of the solons’ response.  On other points, Trumka:

• Defended the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health care law, but said it needs “tweaks.”  He said one mistake in its passage was dumping of the public option – Medicare for all’s weaker cousin – which would have provided competition for insurers.

• Added labor is making progress on getting a change in rules governing joint multi-employer employer-union health plans, which face problems from the Obama administration.  Union leaders say Obama’s proposed rules could force the plans to dump insurance covering 20 million people.  Trumka said labor is trying to convince the administration to direct subsidies for those plans, like subsidies for insurers, to the plans, not individuals (see separate story).

• Declared federal “deficits aren’t the cause of the crisis” workers face “but the result” of the prior crash.  If lawmakers want to help workers and close the federal deficit, they should extend the jobless benefits, raise the minimum wage and approve infrastructure legislation, he said.  All are planks in labor’s economic renewal platform.

• Said “if the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity, it would be $18.75 an hour.  If it had kept pace with” compensation for “the top 1%, it would be $28.”  The federal minimum, now $7.25 hourly, hasn’t gone up since 2009.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Senate Labor Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced a bill to increase it by 95 cents hourly each of the next three years, then index it to inflation.  “And it would increase the tipped (minimum), now $2.13 an hour, to 70% of the minimum.  That hasn’t gone up in 21 years,” Trumka said.

Trumka predicted the minimum wage hike will pass.  The ruling House GOP rejected, on a party-line vote, a hike Miller proposed earlier in 2013.  But he said even Republicans would vote for a hike, for political reasons.  “They’re alienating women, Latinos, Catholics.  They’re even going after the Pope,” Trumka, a Catholic, said.

• Declared “this Supreme Court has done lasting damage to democracy” through its Citizens United ruling to let corporations and wealthy individuals spend unlimited money on politics.  “This court equates money with free speech,” Trumka said.  He added of politicians, though, that “talk is cheap.  You gotta walk the walk.  Obama could have done more in some areas, but look at the playing field he’s been dealt.”

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer