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April 18, 2019

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Next AFL-CIO chief pledges to press for health care, labor law reform


Steve Marcus

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO

Richard Trumka fashions himself after some of the 20th century’s labor firebrands.

Set to become AFL-CIO president next month, the mustachioed third-generation mine worker from southwestern Pennsylvania cuts an imposing figure. His fists are the size of softballs and he pounds the lectern to make his point. But he’ll need more than might to reinvigorate a flagging movement beset by globalization, corporate power and union infighting.

On Monday, Trumka said he’s up to the challenge, pledging to capitalize on Democratic majorities in Congress — and to heal bitter union divisions. He told convention delegates of the international painters union here that he would recast the nation’s largest labor federation into an “agitating, mobilizing, organizing” machine.

Health care and labor law reform, he said, will set the stage. The AFL-CIO has stepped up pressure on both fronts, with Trumka taking partial credit in an interview for turning back an apparent effort to ditch the so-called public option in health legislation. In the past week Senate Democrats have talked openly about using a rare procedure to overcome Republican opposition and centrists in their own party.

Sen. Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who is leading bipartisan negotiations, recently voiced his support for the public option.

“I think we helped them do that,” Trumka said.

It’s one example of a more aggressive brand of politics the AFL-CIO intends to play after being outmaneuvered early on in the health care and labor law debates this year. For instance, Senate Democrats negotiating a compromise bill that would make it easier for workers to organize reportedly conceded a key provision to advance the legislation.

“It’s up to us to help Congress and the president do what’s right by working people,” Trumka said. “Trust me, we intend to help them do what’s right.”

He added: “It’s in their heart. Now we need to get it down on paper and make it law. We will take well-defined positions and we’ll fight to keep those positions … Politicians who vote against (health care reform) do so at their own peril.”

Trumka vowed victories on health care and labor law reforms this year.

With Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, union leaders see a rare opportunity to shape labor policy for the first time since the Great Depression and are redoubling their efforts after seeing signs that some of their allies in Washington are wavering.

Trumka said labor will settle for nothing less than fundamental reforms. As for management style, Trumka said he planned to grow the movement from the grass roots, drawing contrasts between himself and labor leader Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union, the fastest-growing labor organization in the country. Stern’s union has drawn criticism for compromising contract standards in return for organizing rights.

Stern has countered that the moves are part of a long-term strategy that will boost membership and lead to gains down the road.

“When you look at the policies of the last 30 years, they’ve put a box around labor,” Trumka said, citing widespread deregulation and a series of pro-business decisions by the National Labor Relations Board. “That system has proved an utter failure. The difference between me and (Stern) is that he believes you can look at that system and play within that box by accommodating employers. I believe that the system has to be changed because it’s designed for employers to win and workers, every time, to lose.”

Trumka said he isn’t alone in that philosophy. He’s in reunification talks with three unions that Stern helped lead out of the AFL-CIO in 2005, a split that cost the federation “years of momentum,” he said. Among those unions is Unite Here, parent of the Culinary Union. Trumka is also meeting with the National Education Association, the country’s largest union, representing 3.2 million teachers and retired educators.

A reconstituted labor movement must focus on organizing younger workers and unions must stop raiding one another to win over existing members, Trumka said. Toward those ends, he said the AFL-CIO would build a “reserve army” of 1,000 organizers to assist in strategic drives and prevent union raids.

Trumka’s animating vision: Don’t be timid. Act bold.

It’s the kind of thing Trumka’s father taught him.

“If it was right you fought for it. If it was wrong, you fought against it,” he said. “And there was no in between.”

Looks like the family legacy lives on.

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