AFL-CIO’s Trumka to Mexico: ‘We want to get to yes’

The AFL-CIO president talks with reporters at a Monitor Breakfast about ensuring the new NAFTA works for workers – and how to beat Trump in 2020.

Matt Orlando/The Christian Science Monitor
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks with reporters at the St. Regis Hotel on Aug. 29, 2019 in Washington.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, came to the Monitor Breakfast on Thursday with a message: “Working people are rising to meet a moment in history, because we know something is deeply, deeply wrong.” 

Unemployment is low, but workers are still having a hard time making ends meet, as wages have failed to keep up, Mr. Trumka said. Young people, in particular, are struggling. 

“They're starting to believe … that capitalism equals low wages, insecurity, and poverty,” he said. “Along comes Donald Trump the last time, and he says, ‘I'm going to change the rules so they work for you.’”

Enough voters in key battleground states - Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin - bought that argument to elect Mr. Trump. Nationally, union members still voted Democratic overall, but by smaller margins than they had in 2012. Now, Mr. Trumka says, the Democrats running for president have absorbed a lesson: that “unless you talk about the economic issues that affect working people, you are not going to get elected.”

But, it can be argued, 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton made that argument in her campaign. Is there something different about the way the Democratic candidates are talking about “kitchen table economics” now? 

“Yeah,” says Mr. Trumka, “it's the centerpiece of their campaign.”

The C-SPAN video of the Monitor Breakfast can be viewed here. Following are more highlights from the breakfast: 

On the delegation Mr. Trumka will take to Mexico next Wednesday to talk about the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade, which remains unratified

"The proposed new NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] is simply not enforceable. In particular, Mexico has yet to demonstrate that it has the resources and the infrastructure to follow through on its promised reforms. And trade without enforcement is a windfall for corporations, and it's disastrous for workers. But we want to get to yes." 

On President Trump’s nomination of Eugene Scalia, son of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, to be Labor secretary

"When Eugene Scalia was nominated for solicitor of Labor back in 2002, we actively opposed him, because he had a record of being so anti-union. Since 2002, his record has only gotten worse. He called repetitive injuries, at one time, 'junk science.' He's made a career out of trying to bust unions... His views, quite frankly, are dangerously outside the mainstream, and leave us no choice but to oppose him." 

On the decision by the CEOs of the Business Roundtable to redefine the purpose of a corporation

"Remember before, the purpose of a corporation was to maximize shareholder value. And that helped create the growing inequality that we see. Now they're saying, rightfully so, that a corporation has obligations to workers, the state that they’re living in, the community where they reside."

"We'll see if they translate that out into real action. But it is a difference. Now it may be a PR pitch."

On whether Mr. Trump has done anything positive as president

"He at least had the willingness to take on NAFTA. That was the worst agreement that ever happened."

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