February 1, 2010 |
Editor's note: In the following interview AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka talks about what should be Obama's highest priority: creating jobs.BILL MOYERS: You no doubt noticed that president Obama had something on his mind in that state of the union speech Wednesday night.
FOOTAGE OF PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA'S SPEECH: And we're on track to add another one and a half million jobs...Jobs...Jobs...Jobs...Job creation...New jobs...Job market...New jobs...Create jobs right here in the United States of America.
BILL MOYERS: That's right, jobs. Twenty-nine times he mentioned jobs. And well he might. In 43 states last month the number of people out of work was higher than a month earlier. This month, one million people will run out of unemployment compensation. Voters in Massachusetts had jobs on their mind, too - and sent Washington a message saying, "Pay attention!"
My next guest has been saying the same thing for months now and often directly to the president. He thinks the message finally broke through.
Richard Trumka is the head of the AFL-CIO, representing eleven million members and 57 national and international unions. He became its president less than six months ago, after serving 15 years as the AFL's secretary-treasurer.
The son and grandson of coal miners, he made his way through college and law school working as they did -- blasting, drilling and hauling coal from the dangerous depths of the Pennsylvania coal fields.
He climbed his way up the ranks of the United Mine Workers of America at a time when that union was still rocked by violence and corruption. Leading a reform ticket, at age 33, he became the Mine Workers' youngest president. The AFL-CIO leadership marked him as a comer.
He's still out there with the workers, even getting himself arrested with more than a hundred union members just a couple of weeks ago, demanding a fair contract for San Francisco hotel workers.
As we saw in Obama's election, the political clout of labor remains potent. While their numbers have dwindled, unions are still a source of money and people power. But are they getting what they had hoped for from the Obama presidency? That's just one of the reasons I wanted to talk with Rich Trumka. Welcome to the JOURNAL.
RICHARD TRUMKA: Bill, thanks for having me on.
BILL MOYERS: Did the President's speech this last Wednesday night convince you that he gets it?
RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, I think he does get it. I think the speech was interesting in a lot of ways. He knows that there's a lot of anger and frustration out there. And he was willing to look at people and say, "You're an obstructionist." He looked right at the Republicans and said, "You can't say no to everything and call that leadership." He looked at the Supreme Court and said, "You made a bad decision that's going to hurt this country. Corporations already have too much power. You just handed them more."
So, I think he's starting to understand and feel the anger. And I think he's willing to work his way through. Now, the question becomes, will he do it on a scale that's necessary or essential to solve the problem.
BILL MOYERS: What kind of scale?
RICHARD TRUMKA: That's the issue. It has to be a large scale. We lost eight million jobs, plus we have two million that we needed for growth. So, we're 10 million jobs in the hole. In order to do that, it's going to take more than a little stimulus package or a little job bill. Because if all we do is the same thing that Japan did in the early '90s. They would spend a little, look like they're coming out of recession. And then stop and it would drop back down.
They did that for a whole decade. They lost a decade. And our country just can't stand that. So, our job is to make sure that his understanding of the anger, translates out into a jobs program of sufficient size to solve the problem.
BILL MOYERS: So, what are your economists, your experts, your scholars, your academicians telling you we should be spending for the jobs program that you'd like to see, that you think will really make a big contribution to closing the gap.
RICHARD TRUMKA: First of all, we have to extend unemployment benefits. You got almost six million people who have been unemployed for longer than six months. If they lose those benefits, they stop consuming. If they stop consuming, the economy contracts pretty significantly.
So, we have to extend benefits. And we suggested a year's extension, so that everybody knows where they're going to be. Second of all, we needed money for the state and local governments. They are going to have about $178 billion deficit. And if they stop spending, anything we spend on the federal side just negates one another. So, we have to make sure that we don't lose education, like teachers, firemen, police officers, and all those jobs that are necessary. So, we think there should be aid to state and local governments.
We think there ought to be a major investment in infrastructure. We have a $2.2 trillion deficit in this country when it comes to our infrastructure. Bridges are crumbling. Schools are crumbling. Other places, roads are done. So, we need to make a major investment in that. And quite frankly, we think that the government ought to signal or say that they're going to do that over a number of years.
Because if they do that, and say, "We're going to make a ten-year commitment to rebuilding our infrastructure," then they can bring in private funds. We can leverage that money and private funds will come in as well. The fourth thing we think we need in the short term is direct funding of jobs. I'll give you a couple of examples. You go into an area where schools are, where the students are hurting, because of a low tax base. And you say, "I'm going to provide tutors." Now, that creates a job and it helps a student with better schooling, better education, and being able to do better. And then the last thing the President announced he was going to do was that we think that we ought to use the TARP money to give to regional and community banks so that they can lend to small and mid-sized businesses that create that. And we think this year, we need to be on the range of at least $400 billion. That will get us about 4 million jobs back.
BILL MOYERS: Where does this money come from? I mean, we have increased our deficits to record highs. People are really concerned. The President indicated Wednesday night that he's concerned. Where is this money coming from? We don't want to be taxed anymore.
RICHARD TRUMKA: It's a real simple thing. You know, let's look at who created the mess. The banks created this mess. Wall Street created this mess. And the super rich have had a tax break from Bush of $1.2 trillion. We can take a little bit back from the rich that have really enjoyed the last ten years in an unprecedented way, and pay for the creation of jobs that they actually destroyed.
BILL MOYERS: But realistically, Rich, less than five percent of American households make more than $250,000 a year. Do you think you can tax them to fund the kind of jobs program you really want to see?
RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, I'll give you an example. Nancy Pelosi in the House said, "We will put a 5.6 percent tax surcharge on any income over $1 million. Just money over $1 million." And that would have produced $400 billion. Enough to pay for four million jobs.
BILL MOYERS: Your message is very clear. Tax the rich.
RICHARD TRUMKA: Of course. They've had a ten year free ride.
BILL MOYERS: WALL STREET JOURNAL is going to come out next week and say Trumka says that class war is on again. And I'm serious about that.
RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, the class war's been on, except my class has been losing.
BILL MOYERS: You spoke at the National Press Club with this tough warning to the President, the Democrats on the 11th of January.
RICHARD TRUMKA: We worked to preserve a Democratic majority in 1994 because we knew what the alternative was. But there was no way to persuade enough working Americans to go to the polls when they couldn't tell the difference between the policies of the two parties. So politicians who think that working people have it too good, too much health care, too much Social Security, too much Medicare, too much power on the job - are actually inviting a repeat of 1994.
BILL MOYERS: Is that exactly what happened when the Republican Scott Brown defeated the Democrat Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts Senate race.
RICHARD TRUMKA: It was a wakeup call. And we were predicting that. We said, "Look, they're angry. They're frustrated. And if you're not on the side of creating jobs, jobs, jobs. If they don't believe that, and you're not acting that on the scale that they think is necessary, you're going to face a bad time." And that's exactly what happened.
BILL MOYERS: The Senate vote showed that 49 percent of union households in Massachusetts voted for the Republican.
RICHARD TRUMKA: Here's what they were saying. Here's what our members were saying. Here's what the general public said. Here's what working America's saying. That wasn't about Obama's agenda. They were saying, "You haven't overreached. You've under-reached. You haven't produced enough change. So, we're going to help you. You think the status quo's great. We'll show you." They want change. They want their problems solved.
BILL MOYERS: They voted for the Republican.
RICHARD TRUMKA: They did. But they did it because they were angry and they were frustrated and they wanted to demonstrate that change wasn't happening fast enough. And they were going to help it along.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think they want?
RICHARD TRUMKA: They want jobs. That's one thing they want. They do want health care reform. They still want it. But they don't want their benefits taxed in the process. And remember, Massachusetts has universal health care in the state. They were worried about losing what they did have. So, that played into it. Here's a startling figure. For people who thought that their benefits were going to be taxed in Massachusetts, they voted 64 to 32 for Brown.
BILL MOYERS: So, what happens now to health care?
RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, we still have a chance to get it done. I think the ball is in the Senate's court. We said to them, there aren't the votes in the House to pass the Senate bill. So, what they'll do, what we should do is, the Senate has to demonstrate that they have 51 votes for a plan that America will accept and the House can pass. And when they do that, the House can do it quickly.
BILL MOYERS: You've been negotiating with Obama on all this. Is your message getting through? Does he hear you?
RICHARD TRUMKA: He listens to us all the time. We'll see what the results are. And some of it, you know, it may not be what he wants to do, but what he thinks he can do. Or what he can't do. So, it's not, I mean, it's not, I don't think it's fair to just say he could do this if he wanted to. Because there's the Senate, which has been timid about everything. They've been willing to coddle millionaires. You know? It's going to cost them in the long run, I think.
BILL MOYERS: I'm curious, Rich, about why we haven't been seeing more public demonstrations from people who have lost their job? I mean, we covered a story early last year in Chicago of workers who sat in, when it looked as if their factory was going to be closed down. Why has there been so little of that?
RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, you know what? I think some of it is people have been so beat down, that they -- we sort of plucked the hope out of them. And what we have to do is restore that hope. They don't think that there's anything that they can do. They feel hopeless. Corporations are so powerful, and they control the political process so much that there's nothing we can do. They're wrong, of course. And we're getting more and more people that are willing to start coming out now.
BILL MOYERS: So, what's happened that unions don't seem to be fighting back the way they did in the 1930s?
RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, I don't think that's so. I think we are fighting back. You know, first of all, you have a larger array of forces against us. You have a recession right now that's caused a lot of our members to get laid off, just like other Americans out there. You have a set of labor laws that are totally inadequate, and they're not even enforced. Now, President Obama's trying to. But he can't even get people from the N.L.R.B. confirmed.
BILL MOYERS: The National Labors Relations Board.
RICHARD TRUMKA: Yeah, the National Labor Relations Board.
BILL MOYERS: There are several vacancies on there, that you want to see filled.
RICHARD TRUMKA: Of course. And the Republicans, all they do is filibuster. They don't want him to succeed. And so they keep people, quality people that are needed to make government effectively. They keep them out of the spotlight and off the job.
BILL MOYERS: But the Democrats have 59 Members of the Senate. They have a 78 vote majority in the House. They got the President of the United States. And they can't deliver anything labor wants from them?
RICHARD TRUMKA: No, I want to say it a different way. I want to say they haven't delivered anything. They can. And it's up to us, and we're getting there.
BILL MOYERS: But how do you explain that?
RICHARD TRUMKA: Slowly but surely.
BILL MOYERS: Because you really worked for Obama in '08.
RICHARD TRUMKA: Yes, I did.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, so far, one year into his administration, you haven't gotten anything that I can see that you wanted in '08.
RICHARD TRUMKA: That's not so. There have been a number of executive orders that have provided collective bargaining people. I mean, the people he's appointed, Hilda Solis is terrific. Even the people in the Commerce and Treasury are far more cognizant of our position. So, he hasn't been able to pass the big bills yet, but we're getting there. And we'll get them done.
BILL MOYERS: What's happened to the one thing that was most important to labor back in '08? Obama seemed to promise the Employee Free Choice Act, EFCA as - it's come to be known, very important to labor. What happened to it?
RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, it's still there. We're still pushing it forward. He still supports it. The Vice President still supports it. A vast majority- at least 59 Senators in the Senate support it. And over a vast majority in the House support it.
BILL MOYERS: So, will you get it?
RICHARD TRUMKA: I think we will.
BILL MOYERS: You will- you still think you'll get it.
RICHARD TRUMKA: Yeah, I do. I still think we will. It'll take some creative doing. But we'll do it.
BILL MOYERS: And why is it so important to you?
RICHARD TRUMKA: What an Employee Free Choice Act does is the following: It takes the choice of having a union away from the employer, which is where it is right now, and gives it to the employee. Under today's circumstances, let's say you have a unit of 100 people. And all 100 people say, "I want a union and I want it right now. I want it. I deserve it. I need it." It's the employer who says, "No, I'm not giving it to you. I demand a secret ballot." What this does, it takes the choice out of the employer's hand and puts it into the worker's hands, who have the right. If they want a secret ballot, they get it. If they say, "I want a union without a secret a ballot, then they wouldn't get it." And let me just go back and frame this for one second. From 1946 to 1973 in this country, productivity doubled. And so did wages. It was the greatest expansion of wealth and distribution of wealth in any country, anywhere in the world.
BILL MOYERS: Some people say it created our strong middle class.
RICHARD TRUMKA: It did. And the interesting thing, Bill, is the bottom two quartiles back then, their income was increasing faster than the people at the top. And so, the wage gap was collapsing. Back during that time, workers had collective bargaining in 35 to 40 percent of the shops out there. So, we were making sure that profits got spread evenly. From '73, wages stayed flat. Productivity continued to go up, but wages stayed flat. And the amount of money between wages and productivity going up, went to the top one percent. And that's why the Employee Free Choice Act is so important. It's important as part of the economic recovery program so that workers can get a fair share of what they produce. Their productivity gains ought to be split in some manner with their employer. And the only way that that happens is through collective bargaining. So, you get collective bargaining. Wages start to rise again. The consumers start to spend again. The economy's rebuilt again.
BILL MOYERS: In your recount of the past, there seems to be one very important thing that you don't include. And it makes me sometimes wonder why you hang around with Democrats so much, because it was a Democratic President, Bill Clinton, and a Democratic Vice President, Al Gore, who fought hard for NAFTA. And at the time, I-- it seemed to me that the Democrats were destroying their working class base by agreeing to ship industrial and manufacturing jobs abroad.
RICHARD TRUMKA: You know, really, I agree with everything you just said. We opposed NAFTA. We said it was going to be bad. Everything we predicted has come true. And even Bill Clinton understands now that it was a bad thing. We have to change the way we do it. He won't say that trade is bad, and neither will we. 'Cause we think trade is a good thing. Exporting our products is a good thing. Not exporting our jobs. I wish, though-- I wish there were Republicans that I could support. But they're so rabidly anti-worker. They're so rabidly anti-union. I wish that there were dozens of them out there that we could run out and embrace and say, "This is our person." Now, there are a few. But the number is less and less and less each year.
BILL MOYERS: Why did the A.F. of L.C.I.O. then file a friend of the court brief to support the conservative effort recently that, led to the Supreme Court deciding that they would take the limits off of what corporations and--
RICHARD TRUMKA: We didn't. Our amicus brief didn't say that. There was a provision in the law that said you couldn't do ads 30 days before primaries and 60 days before elections. It was very, very loosely written. And it was a criminal prosecution. So, if we tried to communicate with our members. And we were wrong. Because the word that was in the statute was, if it refers to a candidate or refers to the election in the wrong way, it was a criminal statue. We thought that was absolutely wrong for anybody. And we tried to defend the union's point of view and say, "We ought to have a chance to get rid of this." And they could- this Supreme Court could have ended the case by saying, "That's right." It's constitutionally vague. They win." But they didn't do that. They went far beyond that. They become the most activist judges the country's ever seen. And took away the last limit on corporate spending.
BILL MOYERS: But they made you equal with corporations.
RICHARD TRUMKA: No.
BILL MOYERS: They said, in effect, that corporations are persons for the purpose of political advertising. And that money is speech. They also said unions can do exactly what corporations are going to do.
RICHARD TRUMKA: We're willing to forego that because we think it's wrong. First of all, I don't think the framing fathers ever agreed or imagined that corporations ought to have more rights than we the people. And this court has given corporations more rights than we the people. And gave corporations that are already too powerful. And already control the political process too much. They gave them more power on that day.
BILL MOYERS: But the Supreme Court gave corporations and unions the right to spend as much money as they want to leading up to an election.
RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, anybody, quite frankly, not just--
BILL MOYERS: Private groups, associations--
RICHARD TRUMKA: And it's- yeah, anybody. So, I mean, I don't know your point other than to say--
BILL MOYERS: Well, the point-- John Nichols, a progressive writer, whom I think you know, said: "What are the leaders of the Labor Federation thinking? They imagine that with spending limits removed, organized labor will be able to buy enough--
RICHARD TRUMKA: We never argued--
BILL MOYERS: "--television time to reward their political friends and punish their political enemies."
RICHARD TRUMKA: Look, we've never been able to compete with them money wise. They outspend us ten, 12, 15 to one, all the time. But we never argued that. We never said take away the limits. We said completely the opposite. We said there ought to be limits on them. What we said was this language is constitutionally vague.
BILL MOYERS: So, would you support a constitutional amendment to reverse that decision and at least to take away the identity of corporations as persons?
RICHARD TRUMKA: Oh, short answer is yes. I want to be a little cautious about tinkering with the First Amendment. Because the First Amendment is really what makes us separate from much of the rest of the world. It's a wonderful right. And we have to protect it. So, I would want to be careful that we didn't have some unintended consequences with it. But, yeah, I would.
BILL MOYERS: So, how do you make unions relevant in a world where capital is mobile. Moving around. And the gap between capital and working people continues to increase no matter what happens.
RICHARD TRUMKA: Yeah. Well, first of all, I want to just touch on the relevancy thing. In the last election, we were about 25 to 26 percent of the vote. That's pretty relevant to anybody-- according to anybody's scale. But one of the things that we have to do, and I think in the past we haven't done a good enough job at this. We've expected young workers who are working in a different type of economy to change the way that they make a living to fit our model. Right now, we're in the process of changing our model so that we fit the way they make a living.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, workers used to get one job-- take my dad. My dad went to work in-- well, my grandfathers went to work in a coal mine. My dad and his two brothers went to work in the same coal mine. I went to work in the same coal mine. My dad was there 44 years in the same coal mine. People don't do that now. They're going to be in two, three, four, five, six, seven places. So, we have to be able to accommodate them. Our model has to say, "We can help you. And- in the way you're making a living." Not say to them, "Well, figure out a way to stay 44 years at one place and we'll help you." So, it's up to us, and we're changing. And we're working real hard at it. And we're reaching out to young people. And we're reaching out into the community. And we're building allies and it's starting to have some effect, real fast.
BILL MOYERS: You are taking to the streets. I mean, you were arrested a few weeks ago in that demonstration for hotel workers out in San Francisco. Are you calling for more militancy? For more mobilization? More action in the street?
RICHARD TRUMKA: Absolutely. More mobilization. More education. I don't know whether you call it militancy or not. But it is more education, so our members know who is really doing it to them. Here's the model that we see. Instead of going after a politician and elected 60 people to the Senate, we create a groundswell of support for an issue that will get more than 60 votes. And those that don't vote for it do so at their own peril.
BILL MOYERS: So California Nurses, S.E.I.U., A.F. of L.C.I.O., all of you were out there mobilizing this last year, but we still didn't get a health care bill that you like.
RICHARD TRUMKA: Yeah, I think we mobilized around politicians rather than around the issue of health care. Now, that's a subtle difference, but a major one. Because if we continue to educate and mobilize around issues, then 60 votes doesn't matter anymore. It matters that people support that, and they'll lose just like they did in Massachusetts, if you don't grab onto that-- to the thing that they're supporting.
BILL MOYERS: From what interests you, from what you want from this Administration, what grade would you give the President, not just on his speech, but on what he's actually calling for and says he will do about the fix we're in?
RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, let's tick down the items. One, we're about jobs, jobs, jobs, and creating jobs. And I think he said and advocated that a number of times in the speech. And he convinced me that he understands and he's serious about that. He also understands that look, we can't just replicate the old economy. Because if we do, the same thing will happen. So, what we do-- we have to re-regulate Wall Street. And let me say this to you, Bill. 'Cause I think this is an extremely important point. There are two economies in this country. There's the real economy that makes things. And there's the financial economy that was supposed to provide them with the capital to make things. And they-- this was subservient, and the real economy was supposed to be the master. Somewhere along the line, that got turned on its head. And the financial community became the master. And they actually started sucking money out of the real economy, 'cause you could get a better return passing complex instruments around, rather than making steel or autos or anything else. So, it's up to us to correct that imbalance. To make it so that the real economy is actually the dominant economy. And the financial economy is a servant to make them- enable them to do their job. And that's going to take re-regulation so if we enacted everything he said with the jobs bill, that's an A minus. He's trying to fight for jobs. We're going to fight with him. Our job, all of us, as Americans, is to make sure that we push the Congress and the White House to do a jobs program that's of sufficient size to fix the problem. Not just dribble at it. But to fix the problem. And that's what we're hoping to do
BILL MOYERS: Richard Trumka, thank you very much for being with me on the Journal. I've enjoyed the conversation.
RICHARD TRUMKA: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
RICHARD TRUMKA: The economy's been all but destroyed, and we have to build a new one. A whole new one, based on good jobs not bad debt with America investing in an exporting technology and world class products, not financial crisis....
Bill Moyers is the host of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.