As Labor Day approaches, here are some things on the mind of Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO: The union movement is in a period of crisis, it prefers Janet Yellen as the next chair of the Federal Reserve, and its 2014 political efforts will target Texas, where unions have historically been weak.
Mr. Trumka voiced these views at a breakfast for reporters Thursday that was hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. The AFL-CIO is a federation of 57 labor unions with 12 million members. Trumka has been the organization’s president since 2009.
Government statistics confirm his diagnosis that the labor movement is in “crisis.” In 2012, the number of union members fell by nearly 400,000. Among wage and salary workers, only 11.3 percent are union members, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. In the private sector, only 6.6 percent of all employees are union members.
When asked to outline the causes of the union movement’s woes, Trumka said, “First I will point the finger at us. I don’t think that we kept pace with the changing economy and the change in environment, both economic environment and political environment.” Young people face economic circumstances “significantly different than the needs of 25, 30, 40 years ago,” he noted.
Among external causes of the decline in union membership, Trumka cited “employers who will take advantage of every loophole to prevent people from having a voice on the job.”
Another major factor, he said, is “that the Supreme Court equates money with free speech.” He went on, “That has allowed corporations to dominate policy and politics in the United States to the danger of democracy.”
To strengthen workers’ economic position, it is extremely important, Trumka argued, whom President Obama nominates to be the next Fed chair, replacing incumbent Ben Bernanke. The chair, Trumka said, has a dual assignment: controlling inflation and seeking full employment.
The AFL-CIO, he cautioned, has not yet taken a formal position on who should succeed Mr. Bernanke. But Trumka displayed an obvious preference for Ms. Yellen, Fed vice chair, over Lawrence Summers, a former Treasury secretary and Harvard president. The two are believed to be the leading candidates for the job.
“If you looked at history and that is what I was trying to do, if you look at history, who do I think would be the best at that job, to date? You know who that is. Because she’s been very balanced in her approach forever,” Trumka said.
The AFL-CIO has long been a major player in American politics. When asked about the labor federation’s political goals in the 2014 election season, Trumka said, “We still are going to hold everyone accountable, and that is politicians of both parties. Obviously those that have proven to be hostile to the interests of working people are going to get a heightened focus.”
The organization, he said, would be “playing in some states” where it had not been a major factor in the past. When pressed for an example, Trumka said, “We will be in Texas in a bigger way than we have in the past.”
He explained, “Texas is a majority-minority state. Yet minorities are denied right now effectively the voice that they should be entitled to." He added, “We also think there needs to be more union people in the state of Texas, and so we are going to go and give that a try.”
Just 5.2 percent of people employed in Texas belong to a union, less than half the national level, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
While Trumka argued that the Affordable Care Act “is a major step in the right direction,” he admitted that “we made some mistakes along the way” in designing the legislation. One mistake, he said, was taking away the “government’s power to use its buying power to drive down the price of prescription drugs.”
He also said that the problem of employers cutting workers’ hours to avoid having to provide them with health insurance under the Affordable Care Act “is something that needs to be addressed.”