Unions 2.0? Trumka on Austerity, Elizabeth Warren, and Progressives

Richard Eskow

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka characterizes his vision of a progressive and populist-oriented labor coalition, not as a modern innovation, but as a return to labor’s roots. In an in-depth interview for The Zero Hour, Trumka covered a range of topics that included the postwar heyday of the middle class, the union movement’s relationship to the left, the logic behind fighting for non-unionized workers, and the possible presidential candidacy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

The interview can be seen in its entirety above, but here are some selected excerpts. I began the interview by describing my own childhood in Utica, N.Y., during the 1950s and 1960s, when a family could live a good life on a single blue-collar income, and asked: “Are those days gone forever?”

“Those days will be gone forever if we continue with the same austerity policies of the last thirty years,” Trumka replied. “If we change those policies those days can yet be in front of us … we can produce good jobs … They’re doing it in Germany, they’re doing it in Brazil, they’re doing it in Australia, they’re even doing it in Canada.”

Former participants in the antiwar movement of the late 1960s recall a time when many unionized workers were pitted against progressive activists under the leadership of the AFL-CIO’s then-President George Meany. We mentioned this history to Trumka after he used the word “progressive” to describe the AFL-CIO’s goals. In his response (excerpted below), Trumka spoke about the progressive origins of the United Mine Workers of America, where he served as president before joining the AFL-CIO leadership:

“This is back to the future for us,” Trumka replied. “At our very first convention in 1890  … we adopted a resolution in our Constitution that prohibited discrimination by race, creed, color, or national origin. We elected two African-American males to our executive board … We never had a Jim Crow local in the Mineworkers. We’re going back to those roots, where we were part of the community and the community was part of us …”

Trumka then went on to describe the AFL-CIO’s efforts to form alliances with progressive groups and community organizations.

“The more we raise wages for everybody,” said Trumka, “the better off we all are, whether they’re union or non-union … We’re partnering with day workers that are undocumented, that hire out by the day … Domestic workers that have had a tough time because they’re individually in each home, we’re bringing them together (and) partnering with them. They’re actually affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Car wash workers on the West Coast that couldn’t even get protective clubs to keep their skin from being burned … taxicab workers in New York City … we’re experimenting with different types of workers, to help workers.”

Trumka also spoke about the exploitation of undocumented workers, and the use of undocumented workers to drive down all wages.

Finally, we ask Trumka about a report we had read which suggested that he was encouraging Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for president. His answer is below:

The labor movement will need to transform itself to meet the changing circumstances the twenty-first century. Its future will depend on the imagination and accessibility of its current leaders, as well as its ability to develop the leaders of the future. And, at a time when we face catastrophic and potentially irreversible changes in everything from wealth inequality to climate change, there will be many more questions to come.

For more of The Zero Hour, go to ThisIsTheZeroHour.com.

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