Labor Leader Trumka Eyes Changes, Pushes Agenda

Posted November 13, 2009 at 6:23pm

Downtown’s newest labor boss is making bold predictions during his first weeks
on the job, assuring passage of a liberal health care overhaul by the 2010 State of the
Union, followed by imminent consideration of contentious “card check—
legislation.

Newly minted AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka also is not ruling out launching
television advertisements or rallying his members against a Democratic-backed health
care bill if it taxes benefits, does not include a public insurance option or if it
does not force companies to cover their employees.

“I would take nothing off the table right now for what we are willing to
do,— Trumka said last week. “We’re making hundreds of thousands of
phone calls, [writing] hundreds of thousands of handwritten letters. We’re
educating the generalpublic, and we’re having meetings with
legislators.—

Trumka’s comments came during a wide-ranging interview with Roll Call on
Thursday, during which the third-generation coal miner also spoke about possible
personnel shake-ups at the AFL-CIO, the still-fractured labor movement, and what his
coalition has in store for the 2010 election.

For now, Trumka pledged that top AFL-CIO lobbyist Bill Samuel’s job is safe,
but he declined to discuss the future of Samuel’s deputies or other employees in
the government affairs office.

“Bill is not going anywhere, that’s what I’ll tell you,—
Trumka said. “If not the best, he’s one of the best lobbyists in the
city.—

Lines in the Sand

While somewhat coy about the AFL-CIO’s internal affairs, Trumka is outspoken
about where his group stands on health care reform. He said the federation’s
members are dead-set against legislation cleared by the Senate Finance Committee that
would tax health care plans costing more than $21,000 per year, a proposal that could
disproportionately affect generous union health insurance plans.

“We’ve already paid a lot, and we think it’s bad policy to tax our
benefits to pay for people,— Trumka said. “The rich have gotten a free
ride, and the model that’s created in the House side is a good model, and we
think it’s the way to go.—

Trumka added that by taxing expensive health insurance plans, Members would hurt
older, sicker workers the most because those are the employees who most need premium
coverage. “It’s not because they’re luxurious plans or Cadillac
plans,— he said.

“It puts the cost of reform on the middle class,— he continued.

“It actually puts it on the oldest and sickest and the small-business
employees when the focus should be making the insurance companies compete
differently.—

Once a health care reform bill has been sent to President Barack Obama’s desk
before the State of the Union, Trumka pledged the Employee Free Choice Act will be
next. The card check bill, which would make it easier for workers to unionize,
continues to be the target of a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign by the
measure’s opponents, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business
groups.

Trumka confirmed that he spoke late last week with Democratic leaders in both
chambers about the prospects for card check.

“We’re committed to getting health care done … and then we’ll
get to the Employee Free Choice Act in the wake of that,— he said. “I feel
very confident that in the wake of health care, you’ll see that we’ll get
the Employee Free Choice Act done.—

Trumka declined to address specifically whether his group would support a proposed
EFCA compromise that strips the bill’s most contentious provision: an accelerated
process for workers to form a union.

“The majority sign-up is front and center in the bill right now,— he
said.

Appalachian Roots

The 60-year-old leader of the nation’s largest labor group grew up Appalachia,
just miles from the West Virginia border in southwestern Pennsylvania. After high
school, Trumka followed his grandparents, father, six uncles and a dozen cousins into
the coal mines, where he recalls doing “virtually every job.—

The miners’ union eventually sent Trumka to college and later to law school.
The Penn State alumnus went on to become the president of the AFL-affiliated United
Mine Workers of America. Trumka became John Sweeney’s No. 2 at the federation 14
years ago and succeeded him as its president in September. He said the contemporary
labor movement has a lot to learn from his years navigating through dark mine
shafts.

“When you work underground, you depend on the people around you. You learn
real solidarity, and you carry that with you,— he said. “You learn how
insignificant you are and that things work best when you work from the bottom up, not
the top down.—

Trumka said he continues to work with the Service Employees International Union and
other former AFL-CIO affiliates that quit the group in 2005 to form the rival
federation Change to Win. But Trumka said his contact with former Rep. David Bonior
(D-Mich.), who has been tasked with brokering a possible reunification, is limited.
Bonior’s son is an SEIU employee.

“They’re not interested in coming back,— Trumka said of the
SEIU.But he’s not giving up on wooing other Change to Win affiliates.

“We’re working with everybody, all of the other unions, to figure out a
way to bring them back,— he said.

SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette declined to discuss the state of the ongoing
talks but said, “Rich Trumka has a long history standing up for
workers.—

“We share his challenges and successes right now, and we’ll all be able
to help workers navigate through a changing economy,— she said.

Kimberly Freeman Brown, executive director of the labor coalition American Rights at
Work, said Trumka has a “very clear vision as to where he wants to take the
AFL-CIO.— Brown’s group includes both AFL-CIO and Change to Win
affiliates.

“He is a real tell-it-like-it-is person,— she said. “He’s
the right leader at the right time for workers.—

Political Renovation

The AFL-CIO also is planning to launch a “major, major, major— jobs
initiative and devote a $5 million budget surplus to retooling its political
operations. Trumka explained that the federation’s political shop typically goes
dormant in odd-numbered years, but it will soon be in operation full time. A key plank
of the federation’s economic campaign will be encouraging lawmakers to pass a
second stimulus package for small and medium-sized businesses.

“Nothing is going to change, and no one is going to believe it unless there
are jobs being created,— he said. “That’s going to be the major focus
of the federation and hopefully the entire country.—