Talking 2020 with top labor boss, Richard Trumka

Sparring with reporters at a Monitor Breakfast, the AFL-CIO president explained why "kitchen table economics" are key to winning union members' support and beating Trump.

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 was in good spirits when he arrived Aug. 29 for his annual pre-Labor Day visit to the Monitor Breakfast. The first thing he mentioned was his new granddaughter - and we know how tough guys melt over grandchildren.

Mr. Trumka, president of the big AFL-CIO labor federation for 10 years, was also pleased with a new Gallup poll, which shows 64% of Americans support unions. That’s close to a 50-year high, and a 16-point rise since 2008 – including among Republicans. Gallup attributes the increase to the strong economy, but Mr. Trumka credits union efforts to do more community outreach.

He rattles off examples: apprenticeship programs, efforts to build housing, and conservation projects in state and federal parks from Texas to Maine to Oregon. Unions are “working with the communities to demonstrate that we are them,” Mr. Trumka says.

Not that all is rosy for unions as the nation marks the 125th anniversary of Labor Day as a federal holiday. Union membership among American workers is down from about 20% in the early ‘80s to about 10% in 2018, though Mr. Trumka cites figures that show growth: an additional quarter-million members in both 2017 and 2018.

The labor boss calls last year’s Supreme Court ruling that went against the unions a wake-up call to double down on outreach. “There's a weird part of me that says thank you to those that threw that haymaker at us that we were able to deflect,” he says.

Such pugilistic imagery is classic Trumka, a former coal miner and union member of 52 years. After our breakfast ended, he hung around for another 20 minutes and sparred with a scrum of reporters – at times pushing back hard. When one reporter asked if he was saying President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was “all a Hillary Clinton problem” and therefore unions didn’t need to do anything differently, he cried foul.

“I can't believe - I shouldn't have even stood here,” he said. “I should have quit while I was ahead.”

We suspect he didn’t really mean that. Mr. Trumka used the opportunity to recap union successes in the 2018 midterms, in both electing pro-labor candidates and union members themselves, and repeated his promises of a robust effort in 2020 – which has already started. For the union boss, this Labor Day weekend isn’t just about time with family, it’s also a major opportunity to communicate with the public.

The Monitor’s coverage of the breakfast focused on labor’s efforts in 2020, and the values they represent. We also provide highlights, including a look at why Mr. Trumka is going to Mexico this week. The C-SPAN video of the breakfast can be viewed here.

Our next breakfast guest is Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas on Sept. 12.

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